[The General at Peace, continued]
Reno credited FBI Director Louis Freeh with the successful resolution of the Freemen dispute. While acknowledging Waco as a low point, as she did during an appearance at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in November, she also talked about the high point of her tenure, and it has nothing to do with what she accomplished. "It is the people of the United States, the people of the Department of Justice, the people in government, not of government, who are doing so many incredible things . . . to build a sense of community, to build a democracy, to make America safer, freer, healthier, and a more positive place to live in." When I noted during our interview that violent crime has gone down every year of her tenure, she quickly replied, "Well, it could go back up. I know that better than anybody else."
Unlike many in Washington, she does not accept credit easily. And unlike many in Washington, she does not play the power game, preferring kayaking on the Potomac to any cocktail party with political movers and shakers. Indeed, Reno does not conform to most stereotypes of the powerful Washington official.
On July 21, 1938, she was born in Miami, Fla., where she was raised and lived until 1993, and where she returned when she left the attorney general's office. Her father, Henry Reno, worked for 43 years as a police reporter for the Miami Herald until his death in 1967. Her mother, Jane Wood Reno, raised four children and then worked as an investigative reporter for the Miami News. When she does talk about her accomplishments, Janet Reno will point to this as one of her proudest: She took care of her mother when she was dying of cancer and made her comfortable until the end, December 1992, a few weeks after Bill Clinton was first elected president. References to her mother's influence and exploits pepper Janet Reno's speeches. Jane Reno, with her own hands, built a house on the Everglades that survived the fierce winds of Hurricane Andrew; Jane Reno was made an honorary Seminole Indian princess; Jane Reno grappled with alligators; the Jane Reno who told her daughter Janet, "Don't worry about being a little different. It's a lot better than being like the smoothest stone and the roundest pebble in the stream."
Unconventional as she was, Jane Reno was a traditionalist about one thing--she did not want her daughter to go to law school. In fact, she forbade Janet, a teenager at the time, from becoming a lawyer, saying that men were better suited to the profession. So Janet worked to become a doctor, majoring in chemistry at Cornell. But the law, something Reno always wanted to practice, finally drew her back, and she applied to and was accepted by Harvard Law School. Her mother's reaction then befitted her character.
"When I called her and told her I had been accepted at Harvard Law School, she whooped with joy and said she had guessed she had always wanted to do it herself," said Reno.
Of course, Reno's mother was not the final obstacle she had to overcome. Dean Griswold told Reno and 15 other women in a class of over 500 men, "I don't know what you are going to do with your Law School education." Yet Griswold also offered support and encouragement to Reno over the years, she said. Reno acknowledged that attention shortly after becoming attorney general, when she spoke at an event that Griswold attended.
"I had told the story about what he had said, [that] he didn't know what we were going to do with our Law School education," Reno recalled, "and I said, 'I hope I've answered your question, Dean.'"
Reno understands that she is a role model for girls across the nation, who see in her the possibilities for their future. Reno was in their shoes once, at 7 years old, when Dixie Chastain, one of Florida's first female attorneys and a judge, came to her house. Reno said to her mother then, "Yes, I can become a lawyer because Dixie Chastain is a lawyer."
Nearly 50 years later, her gender, it can be argued, helped gain her the attorney general's job. President Clinton, determined to appoint a female attorney general, first tapped Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood '69, both of whom withdrew amid questions surrounding the employment of nannies. Reno then passed an intensive vetting process, and was sworn in on March 12, 1993.
At the same time, Reno clearly does not want to be identified as "the female attorney general." Being a woman, she said, does not add to the burden of a job that already has its share.
"I don't feel an extra responsibility," Reno said. "I have always tried to conduct myself so that people who believed in me were not disappointed."
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