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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Henry Reno spent 43 years on the crime beat in a town soaked with ugly crimes, without ever becoming a cynic. He would tell his children stories of the cops and judges and officials who were most wise and compassionate and honorable. When Janet Reno grew up, she was shocked to learn that Henry had a reputation as a man who could fix parking tickets. But then she found out that her father had frequently been approached with ticket problems by people of limited means. Not wanting to humiliate them, Henry Reno had kept the tickets and paid the fines out of his own pocket.


Such a colorful personal history guaranteed that Janet Reno would arrive in Washington and become, instantly, a cartoon. "She's so hard for this town to understand," says her law-school classmate Representative Pat Schroeder. Friends who have known Reno since her days as a chemistry major at Cornell, or as one of 16 women in a class of 500 at Harvard law, or as a powerhouse prosecutor in Miami, are amused at the caricature. "Everybody thought she was this li'l gal from the swamp," says longtime Miami friend Sara Smith. "They were patronizing her. Miami is a tremendously sophisticated city, and she had to do a remarkable balancing job in office. You don't go to Harvard and not take on some sophistication. I chuckle because they underestimated Janet."

Not anymore. Such is the power of her personal geometry that Reno towers above the countless new arrivals to the city. The last time such a crop of eager young technocrats arrived to take over the capital, Sam Rayburn surveyed the bushy-tailed crowd and told Lyndon Johnson, "Well, Lyndon, they may be just as intelligent as you say. But I'd feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff."

Reno ran five times, and kept winning by vast margins. That she managed to do so running as a liberal-minded, pro-choice Democrat in a deeply conservative county without hiding her principles, carries a lot of weight in the city of perpetual pandering.

Even her fiercest critics acknowledge her ethical hygiene. Here is a public servant who pays list price for a new car to avoid any charge of getting a sweet deal. In a department under fire for being deeply politicized and ethically challenged, drifting past successive scandals from B.C.C.I. to Iraqgate, employees consider her their best chance at redemption. Reno has, says an observer from Capitol Hill, "established a certain air of integrity that is emanating from that department. You cannot diminish the value of having the head of the Justice Department being recognized nationally for strength, integrity and honesty. That is certainly something that has not happened at Justice for the past 12 years. It's real corny, but it's real important."

If her popularity has a bleeding edge, it may be that it dates to one of the worst days of her life. On that now famous April afternoon when Reno went before the cameras to explain the disastrous finale in Waco, the peculiar laws of politics ensured that she would get all the credit for taking all the blame. The first image Americans held of their brand-new Attorney General was of a stern, sad, certain woman describing a terrible tragedy and using none of the greasy legal language that would have shielded her from blame.

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