Why Janet Reno Fascinates, Confounds and Even Terrifies America?
By Liza Mundy
And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the attorney general of the United States. Or rather, here is one image of her. She is a man.
More startling, she is a man dressed in women's clothing boudoir gear consisting of nightie and dressing gown, lacy and long, but not long enough to reach all the way to the floor and cover her lanky shins or her large slippered feet. In this installment of the running "Saturday Night Live" skits featuring Janet Reno as the central character, the attorney general, played by actor Will Ferrell, is lounging tummy-down on a frilly bed, watching a video of President Clinton as he hits up Chinese coffee-drinkers for cash.
"Yuck!" she says, appalled. She is hulking and at the same time girlish, peering at the TV set through those trademark large-lensed glasses that make her eyes look obscure and remote, like tiny fish swimming in a fishbowl. On the bed is a pan of Jiffy Pop and a stuffed tiger named Simba.
When the fund-raising video ends, the president himself appears, clambering through Reno's bedroom window. As played by actor Darrell Hammond, this Clinton is ingratiating, simpering, expansive, shorter than she is. He drops to his knees, tells Reno he loves her, begs her not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate his campaign fund-raising. Stunned, she yanks him off the ground and kisses him roughly, after which the fantasy dissolves and Janet Reno, attorney general, is shown to be making out with Simba the tiger.
She is has this been mentioned already? a man.
Also, she is tall. That's one thing. It may be the main thing, the thing that explains so much else. This is what Janet Reno would tell you. They do this sort of thing because she is so tall.
"She's tall," says former labor secretary Robert Reich, who is not, when asked what single thing strikes him about Janet Reno. "The few times we did events together, I was reminded of just how tall she is."
Well, yes, that's one point you can safely make about the attorney general. She is, without question, tall 6 foot 1 hence perhaps one popular image that has emerged of her, big and fearless, clomping through the corridors of Justice. What Reno's sister, Maggy Hurchalla, sniffingly calls the image of a "large person with boots on." But that's just one of many images the culture has yielded during Reno's five-year tenure. One of the longest-serving attorneys general in modern history and arguably the most powerful appointed woman in American politics (given the inherent stature of her Cabinet post and her long-running investigative authority over the president), Reno has been in the public eye more often, or at least more dramatically, than anyone else in Clinton's Cabinet. She is doubtless the best-known attorney general since Robert F. Kennedy; citizens who couldn't pick William Barr out of a police line-up approach her in airports to confide some personal outrage.
But even now or maybe especially now, with the spin and finger-pointing that followed her decision not to appoint the independent counsel to investigate Clinton and Vice President Gore the images of Janet Reno are dizzyingly multifarious. In today's political climate, with the parties battling for any incremental advantage, it's probably not surprising that the Democrats are spinning her one way and the Republicans another that she's been portrayed, alternately and with equal conviction, as a flinty individualist and a pandering White House loyalist: A "paragon of public virtue" is how Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) put it, not long after Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, had gone on record saying how sad it was to see Janet Reno shredding her "last remaining bit of credibility."
And given her earlier career as state attorney in Dade County, Fla., and her current position as head, and figurehead, of the Justice Department which is to say, the main Justice facility, the U.S. attorney operations, the Bureau of Prisons, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service it's probably also not surprising that she has attracted the ravings of a subterranean lunatic fringe. The fringe includes Internet fulminators upset by her Miami campaign against deadbeat dads or by Waco or simply by federal law enforcement in general. Among other things, the fulminators regularly fabricate bogus press releases (some of which have found their way into newspapers and provoked letters of inquiry from congressional offices) attempting to persuade the nation that Reno favors "parental licensing," or that she believes that "a cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible."
But at a certain point, the images of Janet Reno these days cross over the predictable borders of political partisanship and even the ordinary borders of American heartland paranoia, and slip into someplace else entirely the realm of intense cultural anxiety about women in power. There is something about her, rocklike and unbleached, that simultaneously fascinates and confounds and even terrifies the popular imagination: How exactly do you make sense of such a tall woman, such a strong woman, such a quiet woman, such a shy woman? How do you find a way to portray the complexities of an introvert who is constantly in the public eye, a lawyer who loves to work, a nerd, a physically rugged outdoorswoman who loves to kayak and hike, an aging woman, a woman who can sit through daylong congressional hearings with hardly a break?
Why, you portray her as a man, or as a slut, or as a lesbian, or, better yet, as some strange and awful combination of the three! The "Saturday Night Live" skits may be good-natured, laughable, but they go out to an estimated 9 million viewers. And they are consistent with a pattern in which Reno, more even than other women in the Clinton administration, has been incessantly sexualized: In the SNL skits, on late-night TV, in jokes, in rumors, at Washington dinner parties, on at least one recent videotape in which small-time right-wing politicians declaim pompously against her, a videotape anonymously shipped to The Washington Post and labeled "Janet Reno Evil Lesbian."
The culture gropes for an archetype, a way to understand her, some means of comparison. After the Waco disaster and her Truman-like assumption of responsibility, Spy magazine superimposed Reno's head over the pumped-up pectorals of Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator." More recently, the Weekly World News tabloid superimposed her head over the body of a fleshy model wearing a swimsuit and platform shoes ("Janet Reno . . . as you've NEVER seen her before!" promised the headline to the story, which purported to show how men in Japan salivate over Reno), while Jay Leno took the opposite approach, superimposing her head on the body of Xena: Warrior Princess, a TV heroine who is also a lesbian icon. The culture, in short, is confused. Is she Ma Kettle, hillbilly dominatrix? Is she Nurse Ratched, humorless and repressed? Is she Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Joan of Arc? She's hit from all sides. She's a man, she's a woman, she's a man-woman, she's straight, she's gay but amazingly often, she's depicted sexually.
Or at least with extreme attention to her personal appearance. On the World Wide Web, a search of Reno's name yields close to 34,000 entries, including not only news accounts and Justice Department press releases but also one Web site in which her haircut is superimposed over the visages of Demi Moore, Courtney Love, Jenny McCarthy and yes a man, Andy Richter. Another Web site, titled "The Many Mellow Moods of Janet Reno," is frankly and rudely sexual, referring to "a sensuous beast that lurks within the Attorney General's wacky two-piece cotton blend suits," and offering a number of stock newspaper photos accompanied by lurid captions.
In contrast, a search of Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen the only Cabinet member whose name appears on the Web more often than hers yields entries like "Secretary of Defense Earth Day Message" and "Slide Image: Defense Reform Initiative."
Hence the paradox of Janet Reno. The woman famous for saying, "I don't do spin," has been spun over and over again. Reno herself takes a benign view of all this. "I think people just like to have fun," is what she says of the jokes, the tabloid photos, the Internet sites. There are those close to her who agree. Some people have "stereotypical reactions to women in positions of leadership," says Maggy Hurchalla, "and on the other hand you have curiosity, not even unkind curiosity, from people because they like her."
But there are also those close to her who see something else going on. Among them is Reno's former deputy, Jamie Gorelick, who says that she doesn't normally like to look at things in terms of gender but who thinks that, in the case of Reno, it's hard to ignore. "You can't look at the `Saturday Night Live' skits or listen to the comments made about her when she first came to Washington by Washington society," says Gorelick, "and not think that if she were a man, her personal traits like not particularly caring about fashion would be considered okay."
Then again, maybe people say these things because she's, you know, tall.
"It's because of her height; I don't read anything into it," says Carl Stern, former Justice Department public affairs director, who has consented to watch a videotape of the SNL Simba skit as a way of talking about Reno's public image something that was, in a sense, his responsibility until he left the department in 1996. "They have an ensemble cast," he says, pooh-poohing the fact that Reno is played by a man. "Whoever fits the description, so be it."
In this, Stern is adopting the line that Reno herself takes. Throughout her career the first female attorney general has downplayed gender, unlike, say, Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sandra Day O'Connor, both of whom are from roughly the same generation as Reno, both of whom have made sex discrimination a crucial part of their public story lines. Even though (as she quietly said in her confirmation hearing) Reno, too, was denied a law job because of her gender, she has chosen not to go there, not to wave that particular flag. "I don't think [gender] remotely occurs to her," says Anne Bingaman, former head of the antitrust division. Though Reno has advanced the cause of women at the Justice Department, in keeping with her stated intent to hire based on "excellence and diversity," she has tended to surround herself with women who think of themselves more as individualists than as feminists, who prefer not to make an issue of gender, to keep their heads down and work.
In her approach, she's also strikingly different from the other controversial woman in the Clinton administration, the other woman who has jokes and Web sites devoted to her hair and her sexuality, the other woman who has appeared on a tabloid cover in a bathing suit (and another time, holding a space alien baby): Hillary Clinton. In a sense, Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno both have been thrust into excruciatingly difficult roles for modern women to accommodate. Clinton in the highly symbolic, conventionally feminine role of first lady has one redoubtable host of expectations to cope with, and Reno, in the traditionally masculine role of "top cop," has another. And both have coped in very different ways. Unlike Reno, Hillary Clinton came to Washington as a feminist networker, surrounded herself with women who made gender an issue first and foremost. Unlike Reno, she has at times attempted to parry the fulminators publicly. The response to her infamous 1992 campaign remark, "I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas," shows how risky it can be to answer the critics on their own terms.
In a sense, Reno's head-down stance is consistent with her whole attitude toward publicity, which is to say: Go forward, do your work, don't make a lot of noise, don't spin. Whenever political appointees come to Washington, it's necessary to make a decision about how and whether to participate in the image-management industry. Madeleine Albright, for example, is one Cabinet member who pays close attention to how she looks and who she knows and how she's portrayed. In contrast, when Reno came to Justice she didn't even want a press office (in Miami, she fielded reporters' calls herself). When it became clear she had to have one, she chose Stern, a former law correspondent for NBC, to head it, with the idea that his natural inclination would be to distribute information rather than spin. According to Stern, she remains remarkably unconcerned about how people see her. When she cut down the medication she was taking for Parkinson's disease because it was interfering with her sleep, Stern says he quizzed her about the fact that this would make her tremor more pronounced. How would that look? How would it play out?
Her reply, he says, was, "So I'll be an old lady who shakes."
But ironically, her lack of image management has in some ways made her a more inviting target for the leakers and the fulminators. As hard as she has tried to avoid the gender issue, it often simply proves impossible to avoid. She has encountered adversaries who attempt to discredit her through the crudest and easiest of means, by challenging her heterosexuality even as they offer absolutely no evidence none beyond her unmarried status. It's something that unmarried female politicians commonly run up against. In Virginia, when then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry was running for governor, her opponent, George Allen, suggested his status as a family man was one reason why he was better qualified; in an earlier race an opponent had attempted to challenge Terry with a crude reference to her "five ringless fingers." Similarly, an antagonist in Dade County, Jack Thompson, once approached Reno at a public forum, thrust a piece of paper in her direction, and demanded that she check a box saying whether she was heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Reno threw an arm around him, told him that she liked big, strong, handsome, kind, sensitive, intelligent men, and added, "I understand why you might be confused."
It was an adroit, sensitive parry of a label dyke! that many women are confronted with at some point or other, one that's so difficult to handle because, in responding, one runs the risk of protesting too much, or implying that there's something wrong with homosexuality. Moreover, it's a label that's impossible to disprove.
"Women, often, are polarizing," says political consultant Carter Eskew, something that will come as no surprise to working mothers, or to stay-at-home mothers, or to single mothers, or to unmarried women, or to women without children. Everybody has an opinion about the most personal choices a woman can make, and naturally these opinions get translated to the public arena. Reno thus remains an easy target despite her Olympian disregard of the rumormongers.
In Washington, moreover, she also unnerves people because she is so introverted, such an inveterate non-schmoozer. During the week, she works. On weekends, she works, and, when she has a chance, hikes the C&O Canal or kayaks the Potomac behavior that baffles the A-list crowd. "Washington, particularly in the corridors of power, is a very normative environment," Jamie Gorelick says. "So wonderful qualities that are endearing in another community are deemed unacceptable here."
In short, even in Washington in a city where married people are normal, where divorced people are normal, where people having affairs are normal a single woman with a magnificent career and a host of abiding friendships and a set of rugged hobbies is suspected of being odd, of not having a life. Her lifestyle is not ordinary; it's not what most people do. This, in part, is the cultural assumption that the "Saturday Night Live" video taps into.
Hence Janet Reno in her bedroom, wearing a nightie, alone with her fantasies. This is the main thing that Carl Stern notices about the video; this is what irritates him.
"What's grating," he says, "is that the attorney general has not only a very normal sort of life but a nice life. Both in Florida and in Washington she has a great many friends whose homes she visits, and she goes to plays, her dance card is full. To portray her as a wallflower that nobody asks to dance is not only demeaning but inaccurate. She's a woman with a very active, full life as I said, her dance card is full."
"For that reason," he says, "I find it a little painful."
"I am interested,"says John White, "in the comment on the blue dress."
White, professor of politics at Catholic University, is sitting in a room in the school's law library watching the same SNL tape. Outside, hundreds of would-be attorneys general, or simply would-be attorneys, are studying for pre-Christmas finals. Half of them are women. Which says a lot about how things have changed, how the law has changed, in this country, subsequent to Reno and Ginsburg and O'Connor's generation. In the initial wave of feminism, it seems the first thing women did, after burning their bras and declaring their freedom, was, in a rather contradictory gesture, to enroll in law school. None of this, White marvels, has changed the way women are depicted and seen in Washington, or really anywhere.
"Does anyone," White asks rhetorically, "talk about what Orrin Hatch wears?"
White has focused on a portion of the SNL skit where Reno gets a phone call from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and, in a Gidget-like moment, asks Conyers what he's going to wear to Congress the next day.
"A suit," he sighs. "What are you going to wear to the Justice Department?"
"My one blue dress," says Reno.
It's a predictable joke, a jab at the much- remarked fact that Reno does seem to wear a blue dress every day, except for days when she wears a blue suit. For a male, such behavior would be less remarkable, expected. For Reno, the dress and the brush 'n' go short haircut receive more attention than probably any law enforcement initiative she's ever proposed. Like her unmarried status, they raise a red flag: "People say, `Oh, bad glasses, bad hair, bad this, bad that,' " says consultant Neel Lattimore, former press secretary to Hillary Clinton. "When was the last time Alan Greenspan got accused of wearing bad glasses?"
The point could be argued. Ours is, as John White notes, an age of celebrity, an age of TV, an age of visuals, an age of glare. Men do worry about their clothes, their hair, their wrinkles. Okay, says White, thinking. "Proxmire, when he had his implants done in the '70s, those plugs put in, it was commented on. I'm trying to think of another example . . . Some male politicians make fun of themselves and the way they look. Mario Cuomo used to make fun of his own Italian appearance, Ted Kennedy of his weight but in the early days, Kennedy's weight was seen as a barometer of whether he'd run for president."
"With men," he suggests, "a change is related to political ambition; with women it would be striking but unrelated to ambition, a fashion statement." In other words, women in public positions are expected, far more than men, to be both competent and ornamental.
And what's most different about Reno, White points out, is how the lampoons so quickly leave the realm of mere visuals and move into the sexual realm. "I was trying to think of prominent male politicians who have been bachelors, and I thought of Sam Rayburn, who was married for weeks or maybe just days, and it was never discussed or commented on," White says. While single men may evoke some passing interest, and while it still may be difficult for a spouseless man to attain the presidency, unmarried men don't arouse nearly the suspicion that unmarried women do. Put it this way: There's no Web site devoted to "The Many Mellow Moods of David Souter."
Even so, it's tricky, figuring out to what extent Reno is treated the way she is because she's a woman. In important ways Reno has benefited from her gender: "Gender is the reason I'm here," Reno says simply, acknowledging the fact that she was appointed in part because she's a woman. She's more recognizable and even, possibly, more interesting to some people because she's a woman. Yet the flip side is the over-scrutiny that goes with being the first woman anything much less the first woman in the top cop role, a role that naturally attracts, for its first female occupant, "over-expectation, a narrower path, a narrower tolerance for mistakes," says Laura Liswood, executive director of the Council of Women World Leaders, an association of current and former female presidents and prime ministers at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Feminist academics would say that it's also common for women in power to be sexualized the way Reno has been. That's the way you bring a strong woman down you insult her, degrade her, portray her as sexually profligate, reduce her to her own anatomy. According to others, it's equally common for women to be de-genderized: "It's a classic image, turning powerful women into powerful men," says Pippa Norris, associate director of research at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, pointing out that the British satire "Spitting Image" portrayed Margaret Thatcher as Winston Churchill smoking a cigar.
With Reno, what's notable is that both things happen. Some days she's Schwarzenegger; some days she's Xena; nobody can decide. In part, this may be a particularly American problem. Unlike countries with a tradition of queens or women occupying positions of feudal power, America has no cultural memory of powerful women. Look back into American history and whom do you come up with? Jane Addams? Betsy Ross? No one really seems to do, so the culture flounders for archetypes and keeps coming up with men.
"It was strictly based on the fact that she is at least that she appears physically big. And her demeanor appears to be kind of kick-ass."
Six foot three, tanned, golden-haired, stubbled, wearing a jacket and khakis and not looking faintly like the attorney general, "Saturday Night Live" actor Will Ferrell is sitting in a borrowed office in the NBC building at Rockefeller Center. It's Monday, which means the cast and writers are starting to plan the upcoming show. Will there be a Reno skit? Ferrell doesn't know yet. Today they'll brainstorm with host Helen Hunt. Tomorrow they'll write. The rest of the week they'll rehearse and write, jettisoning stuff that doesn't work, even up to show time.
This is Ferrell's third season with SNL. He started playing Reno about a year ago. The idea crossed his mind because he was interested in doing a part that's "broad and physical." Then his girlfriend independently came up with the idea, and that solidified the notion. He liked the visual humor of a "large woman manhandling people."
"I originally wanted to do this thing where she was almost like a bodyguard for President Clinton," Ferrell says, "and they'd be in Cabinet meetings and she wouldn't say anything, and then if Clinton didn't like the person she'd be like, `Bill, do you want me to get rid of him?' "
Instead, he and co-writer Scott Wainio came up with Janet Reno's dance party. In these segments, Reno is shown in trademark blue dress, partying in her basement, introducing guests mainly for the sake of humiliating them, quizzing teenagers and then telling them to shut up. "We just kind of created this, like, tough woman who lives in this make-believe world," he says.
Janet Reno as you've never seen her before!
Their only aim was to be silly, Ferrell says, sitting in front of a monitor watching the Simba tape. This one is not a dance party skit, but the concept is the same: to emphasize her tough stiff awkward side the only side of her that Americans are aware of, since the only time most of us see her is on TV, during high-profile confrontations while making up this imaginary silly side.
"See!" Ferrell says, as Reno's bedroom appears on the screen. "Things like the fact that she's with the big Simba doll, and her bedroom's kind of frilly. Like, why would she have that?"
He watches as Reno clambers up on her bed. Between the glasses and the work of the wig department, Ferrell's is not a bad likeness. But the mannerisms aren't based on the woman, he says, just her broad outline. In this, Ferrell's Reno is very different from Darrell Hammond's Clinton, the only other running political character at the moment on SNL, which has produced some of the nation's memorable political impersonations, among them Dana Carvey's George Bush. Carvey was so Bush-like you could imagine him on the presidential succession list. Similarly, Hammond has studied Clinton so closely that he's developed a theory, in listening to him, that the president has had extensive dental work.
Ferrell doesn't go in for details like that. "I just sound the way she looks," he says, which is to say tough. When he dances, he patterns his jerky movements after those of a college chum. A male college chum. All he has to do, really, is be a tall tough woman with short hair, any tall tough woman with short hair, and voila, Janet Reno!
"Look over there, there's Gilligan's Island!" On screen, Reno, using a pillow as an oar, rows herself and Simba on an imaginary raft to South America, where Clinton is on a state visit. Then she uses her window curtain to make a bridal veil for a fantasy marriage ceremony. Would they have focused on the attorney general's romantic life if the attorney general were a man?
"No," Ferrell says without hesitation. They'd only go after the sex angle if a man had done something to deserve it, if there was something there already, a Clinton thing, a JFK thing, a Gary Hart thing. But with Reno, the fun is that there's not an obvious sex thing. "She's perceived as almost asexual in a way, so it's fun to do that she really dreams about . . . "
"Well, I think, she just seems like a career-driven woman who is no-frills."
On the screen, Clinton has now materialized in the attorney general's bedroom. "I feel we're giving her the benefit of the doubt," Ferrell suggests, "in that we've chosen to portray her as being repressed and dreaming about men."
Well, um, yes. Sure enough, in her screen fantasy, Reno is kissing the president. Ferrell is laughing. He's never seen the broadcast version before. But he does grant the point: "If the attorney general were a man, would we be doing this sketch? Probably not. And let's say if a Madeleine Albright, a short little, quote `normal' woman was the attorney general, I don't know if we . . . It's weird. I hate to break it down into something as simple as the fact that she's tall, but it's almost as simple as that."
She is, yes, tall. And she's 10 minutes late, which is uncharacteristic. One universally accepted truth about Janet Reno is that she starts meetings on time. This day, though, something has held her up. While she does not explain what that something was, she walks out of her office with hand extended, unapologetic but not at all arrogant, walking with a slight stoop that seems intended to de-emphasize the six-foot-oneness of her.
" `Miss Reno' is fine," she says. Or maybe she said Ms. Reno. It's hard to tell. She talks softly, not tough, not Xena, not Terminator, not the person you imagine from the high-octane confrontations, sort of mumbling the comment into her shoulder as she walks head-down back to her office, having answered a question that's often put: what to call her. It's become a regular shtick between her and members of Congress, who persist in calling her General, perhaps because they still don't know, after five years, exactly what they should be calling her. Reno doesn't want to be called General. Her explanation is that originally the title referred to the "attorney who did general work for the crown," general in the sense of general store.
"So I am an adjective," she likes to say, "not a noun."
The adjective settles into a love seat under a window in her office, and motions toward a chair nearby. In her low-key clothes and straightforward demeanor she comes across as what linguists would call "unmarked." An unmarked expression is a neutral one, an expression that attracts no notice. To say "Do you feel well?" is neutral, unmarked; to say "Do you feel bad?" is unusual; it's marked. Similarly, an unmarked person is a person who blends in, who avoids standing out. It's easy for men to be unmarked wear a dark suit, keep your hair trimmed but more difficult for women. If you wear makeup and short shirts and high heels, that's one form of marking, but if you don't gussy yourself up, you're a marked woman, too, you're making a statement.
Which may be why Reno's appearance attracts so much attention. Many women in politics go ahead and mark themselves with bright red jackets, bright green suits, bright gold accessories. Reno takes the opposite approach: short haircut, staid predictable dress, no jewelry save for a watch and a pair of modest earrings, no makeup except a faint trace of lipstick, no rings or nail polish on her graceful white hands. The effect is to make her stand out like a pileated woodpecker. The harder she tries to get by without calling attention to her physical appearance, the more people wonder what she's doing. Some people think it makes her more authentic; others think it makes her look provincial; still others think it's a sexual signal.
More likely, her demeanor is in many ways the legacy of her mother, Jane Wood Reno. Jane Reno, a newspaperwoman for the old Miami News, was a woman who lived large in the way that many American communities permit and Washington, mostly, doesn't: She loved the outdoors, she scuba-dived and went on days-long seaside hikes and swam naked, she built the Reno house with her own hands, she got stopped for drunk driving, she collected eccentric characters as family friends. She let the wind and the weather age her naturally; photos of her in later years show a woman, worn and wrinkled, full of character, full of interest.
This last characteristic, this unadorned quality, this respect for one's natural face, seems to be a legacy that Reno has inherited. At the same time, she notes, "Mother and I were different in so many ways." Her mother was, to use a Southern expression, a catbird; Reno isn't. Instead, what you see when you see her is the girl in high school who sits in the front row. "The responsible one," as her sister says; the one who sat on her siblings when they misbehaved. The chemistry major, who, despite her mother's distaste for lawyers, applied to Harvard Law. The politician who says she dislikes publicity because "I feel like I'm intruding on people . . . I've just not cared for it."
Really, there's no easy way to describe a woman who is devoid of affect, who throws out a negative force field as she sits. It's brilliant. You can see how she rope-a-dopes Congress. She is not glib. She doesn't feel the need to help, conversationally. She deflates her own accomplishments at the same time as she's deflating conversation. She reveals that she buys her blue dresses from a catalogue the attorney general, a catalogue shopper but won't say which one. Wouldn't want publicity.
As for the rustic, up-from-the-Everglades myth, she thought it was a "hoot," she says, when in early profiles the press made this big deal about how her mother wrestled alligators; U.S. News & World Report even did an illustration of Janet Reno herself roping a gator. Wait a second. These alligators are a crucial part of the Reno story line. Is it not true that everyone in the Reno household knew how, if not to wrestle an alligator, to put one to sleep by turning it over on its back?
"Little alligators," she says, precise, lawyerly. Wouldn't want to self-aggrandize. As for all these other images of her, these multiple story lines, all these so-called portrayals she is not convinced that they exist. "I think I'm fairly transparent," she says. "I think it's fairly obvious what I am."
Maybe so. Maybe everybody has the same idea about Janet Reno that Janet Reno does. Maybe everybody sees this quiet, modest, determined person who loves the law and public service. What, then, about the jokes, what about all the images of her that the popular culture has produced?
After much discussion among her aides before the interview, Reno declines to watch the SNL videotape. But she does agree to listen to a couple of the jokes told about her. To this one, from the Jay Leno show: "The White House Christmas tree was cut down yesterday at a tree farm in North Carolina. Eighteen-and-a-half-foot fir. I guess the tree was driven to the White House, and then strapped to the back of Janet Reno, who carried it up."
To this one, from Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" monologue: "Janet Reno is really being called on the carpet. She and the FBI director are working together on this. She's saying it just seemed like a match when she went over to the FBI and all of J. Edgar Hoover's dresses fit perfectly."
To this one, from David Letterman: "I have to go down to the costume shop and pick up some more shoulder pads for my Janet Reno outfit."
"I think that people are having fun," she says, listening but not laughing. "They're not particularly funny." But are they not interesting? Are they not telling? What about Jay Leno's remark that the independent counsel call was "Janet Reno's toughest decision since boxers or briefs"? What about these repeated attempts to make sense of a powerful woman by making her into a man or an ambiguous sort of woman/man? What about "Saturday Night Live"?
"I thought it was just kind of a spoof of this 6-foot-1 big old girl," she says mildly, then adds, in what is, for her, an outburst: "I can't figure out why anybody's that interested in me."
"Yeah," she says again. " 'Cause I'm basically just myself."
She's the attorney general!
"I know!" she says. "But I'm not any different from I mean, if you asked my friends in Miami, I don't think they'd say I've changed."
Which is not to say that she doesn't have some interest in how she's portrayed. She does in fact collect the cartoons about her, even, she reveals, "the biting ones."
The biting ones?
Yes, she says. "The biting cartoons."
The biting cartoons?
"The real zingers," she explains, laughing now, seeing what the misunderstanding was. Given the context, it seemed plausible that there would be cartoons of Janet Reno . . . well . . . biting somebody. No, she says. There are none of those that she knows of.
"Nor," she says precisely, keeping the record straight, "of me being bitten."
Time for the attorney general, the first female attorney general, the first 6-foot-1, blue-suited, shoulder-padded, catalogue-shopping, alligator-wrestling, Christmas-tree-hauling female attorney general, the attorney general who does not spin and does not bite, to go to New York City.
Land of "Saturday Night Live."
Except that she's here for something else. Throughout her career, the attorney general who downplays gender has chosen to focus on one of the most basic women's issues: children. Being a woman may or may not have made it easier for her to flog the issue of juvenile justice, the problem of kids and crime. Whatever the case, she willingly does flog it. Part of the job of being a Cabinet member is traveling around the country in carefully orchestrated set pieces, giving speeches, talking to grass-roots groups, and she does this with energy and diligence.
This day, she happens to be in New York, at an image factory, one of the world's most powerful: the advertising agency of Saatchi & Saatchi, whose first-floor lobby is, just now, thick with hair spray, perfume, dry-cleaning fluid, mousse, shoe polish, lip gloss, the collective effluvia of people who do not share Janet Reno's pared-down approach to personal presentation. Outside a velvet rope surrounding rows of chairs facing a makeshift stage, there are scores of employees of Saatchi & Saatchi, which has worked with the Justice Department's juvenile justice office to create a series of public service announcements designed to change the way people think about teens, to change the way teens think about themselves, to lure them into community organizing and away from crime. It's a smart campaign, funny, snappy, designed to show that while teenagers may sometimes seem threatening or grungy, that often has nothing to do with who they really are. Posters on the wall show photographs of teenagers who look like drifters and drug dealers but are in fact law enforcement activists. In the lobby is a 150-pound bell, made of confiscated handguns, that will be rung to launch the ad campaign.
"She'll be here on this side of the bell," the PR director is telling photographers, "surrounded by a bunch of kids."
He is talking about Reno, the main draw of the event. Also here is Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, who will be singing an anti-crime version of his song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" titled "Where Have All the Children Gone?" Also here are a number of actual kids, members of Youth Force, an organization run by and for young people whose purpose is giving juveniles a voice in the justice system. One of its members, Lisa Figueroa, a short dark-haired girl with a pierced nose, introduces Reno with a moving speech in which she tells the Saatchi & Saatchi execs about how she grew up surrounded by drugs, how her father drank, how she started smoking pot, how under the influence she got pregnant, how she dropped out of school, how she has been straight for three years, how Janet Reno "proved to me and all the teenage women in the country that I can do anything and being a woman won't hold me down . . . She has proven once again that women got it going on!" The attorney general speaks, offering statistics to counter stereotypes ("If you look at juveniles as a whole, it is only one-half of one percent that are arrested for any violent crime in a given year"), and leaves, as she entered, to a standing ovation.
An hour later, on the top floor of the Saatchi & Saatchi building, Lisa Figueroa is watching the SNL skit and seeing, with amazement, that in it the attorney general of the United States is played by a man wearing a nightgown. "Oh no!" she says with a wail. "That's wrong! It is!"
"It's like me taking Lisa," says her friend Cory Kadamani, also of Youth Force, "and taking out her mind and her voice, and her attitude, and saying what I think she is, based on looking at her."
Also here is Ramesh James, a tall longhaired young man of Trinidadian heritage about whom Cory says, speaking of personal presentation: "He doesn't look like a youth organizer. He looks like he's going to give you a `Colombian necktie' and kill your brother and sister."
Everybody laughs. Ramesh laughs. It's the story of his life. And true, he has been in trouble. Growing up in Queens, he says, he was jumped by some kids who beat him so badly with bats and pipes that he had to be hospitalized and is now deaf in one ear. He says he shot one of his attackers and was sent to a juvenile detention facility. Now he's on probation, working at Youth Force, a supervisor, responsible, articulate, intelligent, traveling with Lisa when she's invited to talk at events. It's always Lisa invited to talk at events. She's small and female. He's tall and male. He knows how Reno feels, being tall, being different.
"I could give the woman a hug," he says, struck by how real and human she appears in person.
In fact, after the event was over, after they'd all finished singing with Peter Yarrow, Ramesh singing onstage with Youth Force, Reno singing from the front row, Ramesh did walk over to embrace the attorney general, who had made a point of hugging Lisa, but instead was edged away by security guards, he says.
Tall guy, dark-skinned. Sorry, no hugs. He's used to it.
They're all used to it. They get it, maybe better than anybody, what the jokesters are doing, the easy target that is appearance. They marvel at how, if they'd talked to Janet Reno on the phone, they would have thought her gentle, petite; how, based on the way she looks, people get a different idea entirely. They marvel at how impressions are formed, how people react to people who are not conventional, people who are not like them, people who do not walk the narrow norm.
"It's men," says Lisa. "They can't see a woman being an attorney general."
"Some men," says another Youth Force member, J.J. Galay.
"I wonder," says Cory, "if we'll ever have a black man or a woman or a Jewish president."
They all wonder about this. They are not optimistic. They know about the power of image. They're just like Reno, they feel, because they're young, because they're different, because they're ethnic, because people see them and leap to conclusions. To Janet Reno she may be merely Janet Reno; to them she is Janet Reno, she is a woman, she is a tall woman, and all of those things affect how people deal with her, how they react. At the same time she is more than that: She is them. "Nobody knows us," says Ramesh, and they sit there, four kids from the streets of New York, profoundly sympathizing with the attorney general of the United States.
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for the Magazine.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company