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Janet Reno: The Calling of Public Service

As the first woman U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno faced some of the more high-profile and controversial issues and events in recent memory: the Branch Davidian standoff and fire in Waco, Texas; the Oklahoma City bombing; the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba; the Unabomber; and more. And yet, when asked if those challenges exceeded her expectations of what a tenure in Washington, D.C., might yield, her reply is typically unflappable: "Well, after you###ve been the state attorney in Miami for 15 years, there###s nothing that seems too surprising." Reno speaks in the Unique Lives & Experiences series in Denver on Feb. 25. (Call 1-877-872-8124 for tickets; more info on the series also available at

Ms. Reno championed the rights of domestic violence victims and children as state attorney in Florida. She prosecuted child abuse, pursued delinquent fathers and set up shelters for battered women and children of violence. "We developed one of the first child support enforcement units in the prosecutor###s office, putting tremendous time and effort into that," she recalls. "In 1978 we put in a domestic violence intervention unit that was one of the first in the country and was at one time ranked one of the best programs in the country. It###s been a subject I###ve focused on for some time. I tried as state attorney in Miami to develop family friendly policies in the state attorney office and that has been very important to me. We tried to do the right thing."

These accomplishments came after Ms. Reno had broken down barriers in her own career. She was one of just 16 women in her Harvard Law School class of more than 500, and the Miami law firm to which she applied for a clerking position between her second and third years of law school rejected her application because she was a woman. She takes satisfaction in noting that 14 years later they hired her as a partner.

Reno###s parents nurtured her independent intellect in a family atmosphere that placed great value on reading and books. Her father was a police reporter for the Miami Herald, and her mother joined the Miami News as an investigative reporter after rearing the four children. The family also explored the natural beauty of Florida. "They gave us the opportunity to explore Florida in a wonderful way, by sailboat, motorboat and hiking," notes Reno. "Both my parents were also very committed to the community and thought that public service was the most important calling anyone could receive-even though my mother didn###t like lawyers. We focused a lot on family time and our life was very full."

Some years after Reno graduated from law school, Sandy D###Alemberte, who later became president of the American Bar Association and president of Florida State University, asked Reno to become staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives in 1971. She considers him one of her most valued mentors: "Even when he was under consideration for solicitor general, and I was being considered for Attorney General, he said, just concentrate on yourself and let###s help you get this job."

The smaller version of political life Reno had lived in Tallahassee helped prepare her for Washington, D.C. "I had spent a lot of time in Tallahassee on funding issues for state attorneys when I was state attorney there, but there were a great many people I was blessed with in Washington who gave me very good assistance-wonderful people at every level of the department, who were good at helping me navigate," she says.

Waco proved to be the toughest issue Reno faced as Attorney General during her two terms, and it continues to haunt her. How did she cope? "I tried to ensure that I asked every question that I could so that I was as prepared as I could be when I made the decision. And I went out and let it be known that I wanted to be accountable for what had been done. And John Danforth wrote to me, after I left office and he had completed his report on Waco as special counsel, that I had done essentially the right thing.

"I###ll never know what the right thing was, because that went to the grave with David Koresh."

In Washington, Reno balanced work and relaxation by finding time to have "good concentrated fun." She "fell in love" with kayaking on the Potomac River and enjoyed early morning walks to get a sense of the city in its quieter moments. "I always found a respite like that helped clear the cobwebs," she says.

Among her favorite historic figures are presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. "I kept on my table three books related to those men, all of whom I admire a great deal," she says. "And the more I read, the more I admire George Washington. I used to enjoy going to Mount Vernon, particularly in mid-winter when there were few visitors. It almost seemed like a walk back in history, to think about his ability to run a farm while at the same time concentrating on the significant issues of a new nation. It seemed remarkable to me."

Reno came back from her years in Washington more positive than ever about public service, despite the widespread controversy about some of her decisions. "It was a tremendous experience just trying to think of the right ways to make America safer and freer and to give more people equal opportunity. Watching and meeting so many Americans, and so many wonderful public servants, really inspires you," she says.

After returning to Florida, Reno ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Governor. She afterwards declared the effort the end of her political career.

Today she devotes her time to numerous causes: children###s issues; preservation of the Everglades and other environmental concerns; and the prevention of conviction of the innocent, and exoneration of those wrongly convicted, through the use of DNA testing. "There have been more than 140 people exonerated of crimes that they didn###t commit for which they were convicted," she says. "This is a wonderful opportunity to look at why people were wrongfully convicted and how you can correct the process so it doesn###t happen in the future."

When asked about how to strike a balance between national security interests and civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11, she stresses that "I don###t think you have to sacrifice one for the other if we use our common sense. I###m first of all concerned because the right to trial by jury and access to our courts I think has been limited inappropriately through the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay with no real authority for doing so. These people are being held incommunicado without access to their lawyers and without being charged with crimes. I think this puts us on a very slippery slope and makes it much easier to erode these rights unless we do something about it now."

Undoubtedly there is an eager audience for a book by Reno, but she has not yet begun the task. "I am trying to focus in my mind on what the book should be," she says. "I want to make sure it###s a good, thorough book and useful for a variety of people."