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The General at Peace

After an often tumultuous tenure as attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno '63 leaves office as she arrived--standing up for what she believes in

The reporter was badgering the U.S. attorney general. Nothing unusual about that; Janet Reno '63 had faced the questions for seven years, coming from all angles, trying to penetrate her determination to say only what need be said. But as this was in the teeth of the Elian Gonzalez saga, when all eyes were on a little boy in Florida, the questions slowly gained heat and velocity. The moment was about to boil.

And then just as suddenly it was a uniquely Janet Reno moment.

Why, the reporter pressed, don't you avoid the political maelstrom and take the matter to federal court immediately?

"I won't let you suggest to me the timing of how I do things," Reno replied. "But one of the things . . ."

She stopped, for a fraction of a second. "Yes, you can always suggest to me," she added. "I'd take that back."

People can suggest anything to Janet Reno (and they do). She will listen, to the president of the United States, to top government officials, photo of Janet Renoand to people all over the country who hold no title beyond citizen. And then she will make her decisions, tough decisions sometimes scrutinized for years, based on her own experience as a lawyer and prosecutor, and an upbringing in which some of her most formative lessons were learned. But she will always listen, unfailingly polite and unfailingly focused on carrying out the mission of the Justice Department. In January Reno ended her tenure as the longest serving U.S. attorney general of the 20th century and the first woman to have ever held the post. During a recent interview with the Bulletin, Reno spoke about her career, sometimes roiled by controversy and tragedy, but always, she said, defined by the resolve to uphold the rule of law. Yet as much as she loves the law, she also looks beyond it--to the care of young children, to the opportunities for those released from the penal system, to doing everything we can to prevent crime and conflict. Janet Reno wants us to be at peace, just like she is.

* * *

Reno has no use for the "L" word. Her staff puts nothing off limits for our interview but strongly suggests that I don't ask her to assess her legacy as attorney general. That, she believes, is for others to decide. Her position is amplified by a sign on her office wall, displaying words she has lived by for her nearly eight years as attorney general: "If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses."

The words are Abraham Lincoln's and, like Lincoln, Reno has also faced tests of her times. The first, and perhaps the most frequently linked to her tenure, was Waco. The name of the town in Texas is synonymous with the incident, in which 75 members of the Branch Davidian sect were killed after FBI agents raided their compound--this 51 days after four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed when they attempted to serve a search and arrest warrant there. Reno took full responsibility and offered to resign.

The incident happened only 37 days after she became attorney general, and remains the low point of her tenure, Reno said. She will never know if she did the right thing or did it at the right time. But she does know that she learned from it. With the understanding that many more vociferously antigovernment groups exist in this country, Reno worked to prevent another Waco from happening.

Reno said of the Justice Department, "[We] tried to strengthen our negotiations capacity and better our understanding of different groups, what their motivations were in what we've had to deal with, and I think the way we worked out the Freemen situation in Montana is a classic example." In 1996 the Freemen group surrendered peacefully after an 81-day standoff with FBI agents and outside negotiators.

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