Janet Reno died early Monday of complications from Parkinson’s disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D’Alemberte told The Associated Press. D’Alemberte said Reno, 78, 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 Clinton 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.
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tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices — also women — were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies.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. Clinton said the vote might be “the only vote I carry 98-0 this year.”
“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 of taking office, however, Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex.
The 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.”
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.
Republicans argued she should have sought appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations of Clinton-Gore fundraising violations. Democrats, meanwhile, grumbled that she failed to act as a team player.
During her tenure, the Justice Department prosecuted the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, captured the “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski that same year and investigated the 1993 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center. The department also filed a major antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. and Reno was a strong advocate for protecting abortion clinics from violence.
In early 2000, Reno tried to negotiate the return to Cuba of young Elian Gonzales, who had been rescued after his mother and others had drowned trying to boat from Cuba to Florida. He had been placed in the care of a Miami uncle, but his father, who lived in Cuba, wanted him returned to the island.
When Reno decided talks had broken down that April, 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 up 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.
Her last foray into politics was the race for Florida governor in 2002. Known for being down-to-earth — her home number was listed in a city directory both before and after Washington — and even folksy, she crisscrossed the state to campaign in a red Ford Ranger pickup truck. But Reno lost the primary to Tampa lawyer Bill McBride despite her name recognition. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush defeated McBride to win a second term.
After retiring from politics she 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. 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.”
After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida and made an unsuccessful run for Florida governor in 2002 but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems.