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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Her performance won her the lasting loyalty of her own department. "She stood up and took a bullet for us," a veteran FBI agent says. But Reno may pay a political price. Much was made at the time of the contrast between her mea culpa and that of President Clinton, who vanished for hours before surfacing to claim responsibility. That contrast, which owes as much to Clinton's instincts as to hers, could strain the relationship between Reno and her boss. As supportive as he has been, and as grateful for having at least one folk hero in his Cabinet, Clinton may have got a lot more than he bargained for. She may be more than he wanted. And that makes for a complicated relationship.


"The White House likes her," says an Administration official, "but they have to like her. There would be no greater loss to our integrity than to have her leave or express dissatisfaction, so we can't cross her. She is simply too popular. It just so happens that she's very, very good and responsible. She's not personally ambitious. I don't think it's particularly important to her that the President like her. If she were power-mad, it would be dangerous."

If there is one criticism of Reno it is that she has a knack for what one White House official acidly described as "acquiring her popularity at the expense of the President." Though Waco was the first and most public incident, that dynamic surfaced again the next time Reno streaked across the % capital heavens. When the White House fired its entire travel department, charging seven workers with corruption, she slapped the White House publicly for using her FBI to justify the decision. White House aides grumble that Reno would have known about the FBI investigation had she bothered to read her In box before telling the Washington Post she had not been informed.

Next it was her loyalty to Lani Guinier, whose nomination as Assistant Attorney General Reno continued to support long after the rest of the Administration had decided to cut her loose. Reno, of course, had nothing to do with nominating Guinier in the first place. Like other picks for top jobs at Justice, Guinier had a long-standing connection with her Yale Law School classmates Bill and Hillary. But Reno came to genuinely like Guinier, and hoped to work with her. Once the President decided otherwise, White House officials complain, Reno still gave Guinier a room at the Justice Department to hold a press conference and blast the President for abandoning her.

From the first, White House aides have made it known to Reno's aides that they consider it important that top Justice appointees should be loyal to the President, not to the Attorney General. Of 13 principal aides, including Guinier, only four so far can be clearly identified as Reno's picks. Many were in the pipeline before Reno was selected. Webb Hubbell, the Associate Attorney General, is Hillary Clinton's former law partner and President Clinton's frequent golf partner. But Hubbell swears loyalty to Reno, and they have become fast friends in a very short time. Hubbell says he is certain about her loyalty to Clinton, and that loyalty has been rewarded, he says, with a profound respect for her by the President. "The President is very interested in her opinion," Hubbell says, "and one of the first questions out of his mouth is likely to be 'What does Janet think?' "

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