Truth, Justice and the Reno Way

Clinton's popular, straight-talking Attorney General wants to revolutionize law enforcement, but will the White House let her?

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If Clinton and his soldiers have learned anything, it is that change comes in droplets, squeezed out like lifeblood. Reno came late to Washington, a third-choice candidate without a long-standing friendship with the President or his wife, without national stature, but with natural allies. She came alone, moved into an apartment furnished right down to the ironing board and the coffeepot, and set to work on an experiment in alchemy. But will it work? Will the most celebrated Cabinet member to storm the capital in years be able to turn raw personal popularity into hard political power?

There is one person in Washington, at least, who seems to think so. On the 100th day of his presidency, as his star was flickering and hers ablaze, Bill Clinton came to the Justice Department for the first time since the Waco debacle and addressed the ranks in the courtyard about his vision for a just society. Afterward he went up to Reno's small inner office and gazed at the picture near her desk of a windblown Bobby Kennedy walking alone on the beach. "One day," Clinton told his Attorney General, "people will look at your portrait this way."

Reno is pure oxygen in a city with thin air, and she has gone to its head. Senators say she is Clinton's most impressive Cabinet member by far; the New York Times called her "a prized asset." When fans surround the table where she's eating dinner with Barbra Streisand, it is Reno's autograph they want. Jay Leno called personally, hoping to get her on the show. He offered to move the taping to any time convenient for her.

No one could have predicted a few months ago that the most popular member of an Administration saturated with lawyers would be a lawyer herself; that she would surface from a process that barbecued two other prominent female attorneys. But if Clinton had had the luck and prescience to pick Reno first, he wouldn't have got her; back in November, when the President's staff was shuffling resumes, she was at the bedside of her mother Jane, an indestructible force in her life, who was dying of cancer. Had the President called, Reno wouldn't have come.

From the day three months later when Clinton and Reno first met and he offered her the job, their styles were, to put it politely, complementary. Where Clinton was twice shy, having been charred by his earlier nominations, Reno was blunt, irrepressible. White House officials tried to coach this daughter and sister of journalists on how to dodge reporters' questions gracefully. Abortion, for one, she was urged to avoid. "What the President of the United States told me as we started into the Rose Garden on February 11, 1993," she recalls, was, "Don't blow it."

So the question on abortion came. And Reno, being Reno, hedged as much as she was capable. "I'm pro-choice," she said flatly. End of coaching.


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