Janet Reno, attorney general during Waco, Bill Clinton scandals, dead at 78

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and the epicentre of several political storms during the Clinton administration, has died. She was 78.

'I don't do spin': Towering 1st female attorney general in U.S. was known for her blunt manner

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is shown on April 13, 2004, testifying during the 9/11 hearings regarding information within the intelligence community prior to the attacks. (Dennis Cook/Associated Press)

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and the epicentre of several political storms during the Clinton administration, has died. She was 78.

Reno died early Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D'Alemberte said. D'Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.

Reno, a former Miami prosecutor who famously told reporters "I don't do spin," served nearly eight years as attorney general under President Bill Clinton, the longest stint in a century.

One of the administration's most recognizable and polarizing figures, Reno faced criticism early in her tenure for the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished.

She was known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner. Reno frequently told the public "the buck stops with me," borrowing the mantra from President Harry S. Truman.

After Waco, Reno figured into some of the controversies and scandals that marked the Clinton administration, including Whitewater, Filegate, bungling at the FBI laboratory, Monica Lewinsky, alleged Chinese nuclear spying and questionable campaign financing in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election.

Elian Gonzalez, held by Donato Dalrymple, is taken by U.S. federal agents from his Miami relatives in 2000. Reno enraged her hometown's Cuban-American community when she authorized the armed seizure of the five-year-old boy. (Alan Diaz/Reuters)

In the spring of 2000, Reno enraged her hometown's Cuban-American community when she authorized the armed seizure of five-year-old Elian Gonzalez. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida and ran for governor in 2002, but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems.

Another former attorney general, Eric Holder, mourned her loss on Twitter. Holder served as Reno's deputy from 1997, and was later named to the top job in 2009. 

'Extraordinary experience'

Born July 21, 1938, Janet Wood Reno was the daughter of two newspaper reporters and the eldest of four siblings. She grew up on the edge of the Everglades in a cypress and brick homestead built by her mother and returned there after leaving Washington. Her late brother Robert Reno was a longtime columnist for Newsday on Long Island.

I hope I do the women of America proud.— Janet Reno in 1993

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, Reno became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School's Class of 1963. Reno, who stood over six feet tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer "because I didn't want people to tell me what to do."

In 1993, Clinton tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices — also women — were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies. Reno was 54.

"It's an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud," Reno said after she won confirmation.

A little more than a month after taking office, however, Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. 

Flames engulf the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 20, 1993. Four federal agents and six members of the religious sect were killed two months prior during a surprise raid on the compound. Reno later called it the worst of her life. (Susan Weems/Associated Press)

The standoff had started even before Reno was confirmed as attorney general. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made a surprise raid on the compound, trying to execute a search warrant. But during the raid gunfire erupted, killing four agents and six members of the religious sect.

That led to a 51-day standoff, ending April 19, 1993, when the complex caught fire and burned to the ground. The government claimed the Davidians committed suicide, shooting themselves and setting the fire. Survivors said the blaze was started by tear gas rounds fired into the compound by government tanks, and that agents shot at some who tried to flee. Reno had authorized the use of the tear gas to end the standoff and later called the day the worst of her life.

"It was a dangerous situation," Reno said of the incident during a 2005 lecture at Duke University. "The tragedy is that we will never know what was the right thing to do."

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr speaks in Washington in November 1998. Starr investigated allegations of wrongdoing by the Clintons after a three-judge panel rejected Reno's choice, Robert Fiske. (Doug Mills/Associated Press)

Diagnosed with Parkinson's 

Things got no easier after Waco. In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's after noticing a trembling in her left hand. She said from the beginning that the diagnosis, which she announced during a weekly news conference, would not impair her job performance. And critics — both Republicans and Democrats — did not give her a pass because of it.

In Washington, Reno appointed Robert Fiske to look into allegations of wrongdoing stemming from a real estate and related banking transactions the Clintons conducted years earlier in Arkansas. But a three-judge panel that oversaw independent counsel investigations replaced Fiske.

Kenneth Starr would step in, and the investigation expanded from the Whitewater deal to include Bill Clinton's deposition in a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual misconduct when he was governor of Arkansas. In the deposition, Clinton would testify that he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky, the White House intern, leading to months of turmoil in D.C. and his impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The Senate would acquit Clinton of those charges.

Monica Lewinsky and her entourage walk back to a Washington hotel in February 1999. Starr's investigation, and U.S. President Bill Clinton's testimony that he did not have sex with the White House intern, led to months of turmoil in D.C. and Clinton's impeachment by the House. (Greg Gibson/Associated Press)

In early 2000, Reno tried to negotiate the return to Cuba of five-year-old Gonzalez, and when that failed, she ordered an early morning raid by federal agents who seized the boy, provoking the ire of Miami's Cuban-American community. Reno insisted that Elian should be with his father — she even kept a snapshot of a smiling Elian in his father's arms near her home computer. 

Reno said later that federal officials tried until the last minute to negotiate a voluntary handover and avoid the raid — where Elian was found hiding in a closet and confronted by an agent with a gun.

"We have been to great lengths to resolve this case in the least disruptive manner possible," she said at a news conference following the raid.

As attorney general, Reno was derided by late night talk show hosts for her appearance, short wash-and-wear haircut and simple black pumps. Comedian Will Ferrell memorialized her in a Saturday Night Live skit called "Janet Reno's Dance Party" and Reno visited the skit the night she left the Justice Department in January 2001.

Bill Clinton sits next to Reno at a White House event in April 2000, shortly before commending her actions in the Elian Gonzlalez case. (Reuters)

Riots in Miami

Reno began her career in Miami in the mid-1960s and had her first encounter with the "glass ceiling," getting passed over for a job at a law firm because she was a woman.

Reno would be eventually hired by the Dade State Attorney's office, and in 1978 when State Attorney Richard Gerstein decided to step down, Reno was named his successor.

Let history make the judgment.— Janet Reno, on her legacy

She weathered a 1980 riot after an all-white jury acquitted five police officers for the beating death of a black insurance salesman. Eighteen people were killed in the Miami riots and crowds chanted Reno's name, accusing her of being a racist and demanding her resignation. Reno refused.

"To resign was to give in to anarchy," she said.

After retiring from politics, Reno served on the boards or as an adviser to several organizations. In 2004 she joined the board of the New York-based Innocence Project, which works to free prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing.

She also spent more time with her family. Shy and admittedly awkward, Reno never married but remained extremely close to her tight-knit family.

Asked to describe her legacy after ending her gubernatorial campaign, Reno quoted George Washington: "If I were to write all that down I might be reduced to tears. I would prefer to drift on down the stream of life and let history make the judgment."

With files from CBC News


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?