Janet Reno was a prosecutor, a politician and a pioneer — a brainy South Floridian who grew up barefoot among peacocks and alligators and rose to the highest levels of government as the nation’s first female attorney general.
She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1995, two years after President Bill Clinton appointed her to his cabinet.
Reno died at age 78, her family said early Monday morning.
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Controversy and high drama marked her eight-year tenure: FBI shootouts at Waco, the Elián González, Wen Ho Lee and Unabomber cases, Clinton’s impeachment and the Oklahoma City federal-building bombing.
By 2001, she was more than ready to trade the corridors of power for Florida’s languid backwaters, and she returned to the sturdy old house that her parents built in Kendall.
“I love this state with all my heart and soul,” she once said.
Ruthlessly honest, stubborn, smart and dryly dismissive of those she thought foolish, Reno served as Miami-Dade state attorney for 15 years — establishing a Drug Court that became a national model — and worked briefly in private practice before Clinton called in 1993.
She frequently bucked the White House yet became country’s second longest-serving attorney general.
Tall in both stature and reputation — she stood 6-foot-1 — Reno minced few words and met challenges head on, propensities that placed her at the center of intense social turbulence in the 1980s and ’90s.
She was state attorney in Miami-Dade during the 1980 McDuffie police trial that triggered deadly race riots in Miami, and attorney general during the disastrous FBI and ATF raid on the Branch Davidian’s Waco complex in 1993.
She authorized agents to seize Elían Gonzalez from his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba, a move that earned Reno the everlasting hatred of many in the exile community.
After Waco, she went on television and shouldered full responsibility: “The buck stops with me.” Jaws dropped in Washington.
Her unflinching demeanor redeemed her politically, while burnishing some of the more outlandish aspects of her reputation.
Nationally, she became known as a “swamp woman” and an “Everglades exotic” who mispronounced Ted Koppel’s name on “Nightline.” Will Ferrell’s odd-duck caricature of her in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” cemented her iconic status.
She grew up in a household where freedom of thought was prized, characters were embraced, and a single rule applied: Tell the truth and don’t cheat.
Known for her short answers to reporters’ long questions, she bristled once when asked for a response to critics who implied she didn’t understand politics.
In a steely voice, she told a Miami Herald reporter in 1998: “If you can get elected five times in Miami, I think you understand politics.”
The eldest of four children, Janet Reno learned her plain-spoken manner from her parents, Henry Reno, a Pulitzer-Prize winning police reporter for the Miami Herald, and her mother, Jane Wood Reno, who became an investigative reporter for the now-defunct Miami News after raising her family.
She never married, which became an issue as she took the national stage. She dealt with it in her usual blunt way. During confirmation hearings on her nomination for attorney general, she said: “The fact is I’m just an awkward old maid with a very great affection for men.”
Until Reno died, she lived primarily in the house her parents built on the edge of the Florida Everglades. Civilization eventually surrounded it but the tract of land remained an oasis of Old Florida, where peacocks roamed — all named Horace, a tradition that her mother started.
The tract originally was 21 acres, but the Renos sold portions to pay their children’s college tuition.
“Mother built it, and Daddy helped with the heavy work when he came home from work at night,” Reno told a reporter for a profile in 2002, talking about the famous Reno homestead. “That taught me that you can do anything you put your mind to, if you have some time.”
Known as “Janny,” Reno was a champion debater at Coral Gables High, a political junkie before she could vote, and valedictorian of her 1956 graduating class.
Hers was a childhood filled with strong opinions and sharp wit, big personalities and staunchly independent thinkers — a perfect training ground for Florida politics.
“I have a picture of her in my mind when she was just a girl, standing so stalwart and determined,” Miami historian Helen Muir, a family friend, once said.
Throughout her life, Reno broke barriers for women. After graduating from Cornell University with degree in chemistry, she entered Harvard University Law School as one of 16 women in a class of more than 500.
Returning to Miami, she joined the firm of Brigham and Brigham, moved on to a junior partnership at Lewis and Reno, then became staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives in 1971.
In that capacity, Reno helped draft a revision of the state constitution that enabled the reorganization of the state court system.
In 1972, Miami-Dade’s powerful state attorney, Richard Gerstein, set out to hire Reno, who had just lost a bid for a Florida House seat.
“Gerstein thought if he hired Janet Reno it would show the Herald and the legal establishment that he wanted quality people on his staff,” said Seymour Gelber, Gerstein’s former chief assistant, later a state circuit judge and Miami Beach mayor.
Reno, who thought prosecutors were more interested in seeking convictions than justice, initially resisted Gerstein’s offer. Once onboard, she set about overhauling the state attorney’s office.
“I figured it would take her six months, minimum,” said Gelber, who assigned the task. “Sixty days later she walks into my office with a sheaf of paper and says, ‘Here it is.’ I can’t say that it was perfect, but I was flabbergasted that she did it so quickly.”
Reno replaced Gelber as Gerstein’s chief assistant. She never tried any criminal cases.
She left the state attorney’s office in 1976, when her mentor, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, lured her to Steel, Hector & Davis. The prestigious Miami firm had once rejected her for a summer job during law school because she was a woman.
A year later, when Gerstein decided to end his 21-year reign, Reno’s name landed high on the short list to replace him. D’Alemberte put in a good word with Gov. Reubin Askew.
“I told him she wasn’t a prosecutor, but what he wanted in a state attorney was a person with unquestioned integrity who knew how to make the tough decisions,” recalled D’Alemberte, former president of Florida State University. “That was Janet.”
She took over an office of 95 prosecutors who handled 15,000 felonies and 40,000 misdemeanors a year.
Even after becoming state attorney, her home number remained listed in the phone book, and she often toiled on weekends.
“I hate to say it, but she didn’t have a life,” said Abe Laeser, a longtime senior prosecutor who has worked with Gerstein, Reno and her protege and successor, Katherine Fernández Rundle.
But the Arthur McDuffie case in 1980 nearly ended her career. After four Miami-Dade cops charged in the beating death of a black insurance agent won acquittals from an all-white jury, many blamed Reno.
When the verdict was announced, thousands gathered outside the Miami-Dade courthouse chanting “Reno must go!” They set fire to the lobby, kick-starting a three-day riot that horrified the city.
Reno said quitting would be like “giving in to mob rule.” Instead, in the following weeks and months, she ventured into smoldering Liberty City. She never apologized for the McDuffie trial, but she shared residents’ deep disappointment. In hindsight, her boldness saved her political life.
“What impressed people was that she went into the black community at night without a police escort and was able to convince people that she did the best she could with the case,” said Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, once one of Reno’s most vocal black critics.
In 1993, the call came from the White House, the start of eight news-filled years in Washington for Reno. The Waco raid happened before she’d even had time to hang anything on the walls of her new office.
Cult leader David Koresh and 85 of his Branch Davidian followers — 21 of them children — perished after a 51-day standoff with ATF and FBI agents.
On April 19, the agents attacked the cult’s Mount Carmel headquarters, which burst into flames.
“I have absolutely no doubt at all that the cult members set it, based on all the information that has been furnished to me,” Reno said in a later interview. But she also acknowledged that the assault had been a mistake “based on what we knew then. Based on what we know now, it was obviously wrong.”
In early 1994, she appointed independent counsel Robert Fiske Jr. to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton’s financial dealings with the Whitewater property company.
In early 1998, Fiske’s successor, Kenneth Starr, asked Reno to expand the scope of the independent counsel’s inquiry. She agreed, triggering investigations into the president’s alleged sexual escapades that culminated in his early 1999 impeachment.
The Elián affair came late in her second term, stretching through an agonizing months, ending in the Easter morning raid at the boy’s relatives’ home in Little Havana, and the unforgettable photo of a the terrified Elián being rushed out at gunpoint.
“To be vilified for returning a boy to his father is not a pleasant circumstance,” Reno would later say.
In November 1995, Reno revealed that she had Parkinson’s, an incurable, degenerative disease. By then, her trembling hands had begun to worry subordinates, but it didn’t slow Reno.
“As I grow old ... I may find some limitations in mobility,” she said at the time. “But I feel fine now... . I don’t feel I have any impairment.”
Also in 1995: the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, killing 168 — including 19 children — injuring 500, and causing $80 million in damage.
In 1996, the FBI arrested Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, who’d been sending exploding mail to various targets since 1978, killing three and injuring 24. Reno had authorized The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish his “manifesto,” which led his own brother to identify him to authorities.
In 1999, Reno found herself at the center of another controversy, involving Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American accused of spy for China after he downloaded nuclear secrets to a non-secure computer.
In 2000, a federal judge threw out 58 of 59 charges against him and credited Lee with time served in jail: nine months, mostly in solitary confinement. He also harshly criticized federal prosecutors and investigators.
Reno was, once again, unrepentant.
“I know what I’ve had to do based on the evidence and the law. I know what I’ve had to do to address the national security issues,” she said.
By the time she returned to her hometown in 2001, she was longing for the simple pleasures, like kayaking Florida’s backwaters.
She said she didn’t fear retribution from a Cuban-American community still seething over the Elían Gonzalez affair. Instead, she said, she looked forward to the day when she would hash out the affair with Cuban-American friends over pastelitos.
But she didn’t stay out of politics for long. In 2002, she ran unsuccessfully for Florida governor, embarking on a “little red truck tour” of the state — she drove herself from Tallahassee to the Florida Keys in a Ford pickup truck.
She refused to take public money for her campaign, a decision that probably cost her the race. Despite much greater name recognition, she lost the primary to political unknown Bill McBride, who later lost to Jeb Bush.
During her gubernatorial campaign in 2001, she charmed the crowd in trademark Reno style.
“In the last few days I’ve been alternately described as the 800-pound gorilla, a sad, slightly mad old lady that should rock in her chair, the sponsor of a teeny-bopper dance club on a program called Saturday Night Live,” she said. “What you see, ladies and gentlemen, is what you get.”