Janet Reno, First Woman U.S. Attorney General, Dead at 78
Janet Reno, the first female attorney general of the United States, has passed away at the age of 78 due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. She had been diagnosed with the condition in 1995.
Reno was born in Miami, Florida in 1938 to journalist parents. After graduating from Cornell, she went to Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1963, Reno worked in both the public and private sector, eventually becoming the first female state attorney of Florida.
President Bill Clinton nominated Reno for attorney general shortly after his own election in 1992. After being unanimously approved by the senate, Reno went on to hold the office for eight years, the longest tenure of the 20th century.
Reno’s tenure faced near immediate criticism due to the raid of cult leader David Koresh’s Waco Texas compound just weeks after she took office. The controversial decision to storm the compound, which had involved a standoff with law enforcement for 51 days, left 80 people dead, including 20 children. Reno would famously shoulder blame for the incident, saying later, “The buck stops with me,” in response to questions about responsibility for the deaths.
Reno’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez case in 2000 was also controversial. The young Cuban refugee had become an international symbol for many after surviving a perilous sea journey to Florida that had taken his mother’s life. The boy’s father and the Cuban government demanded he be returned, while his relatives in Miami and anti-Castro activists wanted him to stay in the United States. Reno’s choice to send in a SWAT team to retrieve the boy during an early morning raid, which was famously photographed in terrifying detail, was met with much derision.
Reno once again shouldered responsibility for the action saying months later, “I have no regrets. What I always do is to try to keep an open mind and listen and learn for the future.”
Reno’s legacy isn’t fully defined by controversy however; as she led the DOJ to successfully capture numerous homegrown terrorists, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She also diligently fought for women’s rights during her tenure.
“I think we should do everything we can under federal law to protect a woman’s right to choose from physical restraints that people would try to place on it,” she once told CNN.
Beyond her work, Reno became a part of 1990’s pop culture. Her fashion sense, or lack thereof depending on one’s point of view, became a running joke on numerous late night talk shows. A caricature of Reno played by Will Ferrell starred in the long-running “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” sketch that became a part of the era’s Saturday Night Live. Reno even appeared alongside Ferrell on the sketch after she’d left office.
Reno left the Department of Justice following George W. Bush’s election in 2001, and besides a failed Florida gubernatorial bid in 2002, left politics behind. She lived her final years in Florida, occasionally speaking on topics of criminal law.