She fills the television screen, a great, broad block of orange suit jacket, shouldering the blame for Waco.
"This was a judgment I made," Janet Reno tells Ted Koppel as the cinders in Texas still smolder. "I think the responsibility lies with me." An estimated 86 people have just burned to death and she's been on all four major networks to explain why.
"Let me just interrupt" -- Koppel tries, a few minutes into the face-off.
"But," Reno rolls over him, "most importantly, Mr. Koppel ... "
She pronounces it "Kuh-PELL." To your average power player of course, it's "Ted" with dinner-party familiarity. But the name of one of Washington's best-known journalists falters on Janet Reno's lips because, frankly, she hasn't been to manyWashington dinner parties and she hasn't watched much of "Nightline" or anything else on television.
Her voice is calm, steady as the creak of a porch swing. Her eyes lock in focus between the top of her glasses and the shadow of their rims. If you know Reno, though, you see the devastation, you recognize her pained look. The face gets stiller, the jaw line hardens. She compacts her mouth, sends tight packets of words over her lower lip.
"I think it's one of the great tragedies of this time," Reno says.
It is clear that a different kind of bird has nested at Justice. You saw that the day after her swearing-in, when she marched to work in her Everglades boots through a violent blizzard, her security agents sloshing after her. She insists on wearing her ID badge and shuttles through metal detectors like all the other employees. And now here she is, inviting inquiry, embracing responsibility, addressing a "Mr. Kuh-PELL."
The attorney general's candor may surprise those used to politicians who duck and cover when things go wrong. But Reno's friends say Monday's decision to step up to the microphones alone was typical Janet. This is, after all, a 6-foot-2 woman who chain-saws trees for relaxation. Her family jokes that if the stress gets too bad, they'll grow Florida holly trees on top of the Justice building. After work, Reno could run up to the roof and cut down the forest.
She grew in this damp soil. She thrived in this gluey air. Here in the Everglades, Janet Reno climbed into her canoe and for hours watched the stars float on the river.
"See where Janet stomped around," says Reno's friend of 30 years, a Miccosukee Indian woman with long, graying hair named Alice Osceola. Her patchwork skirt skims the grass at the Osceola camp, a cluster of chickee huts roofed with palm fronds.
Here in the Tamiami Canal, Reno swam with water moccasins and alligators. Here by the fire pit she helped the Indians stew turtles. Here she slept to the percussive grunt of pig frogs, on ground flecked with shells from an ancient sea.
Reno comes from the swamp. Now she comes to a swamp, to a weedy bureaucracy that sits on drained marshland. Even before Waco -- with its expected inquiries and intrigues -- Reno had taken over a demoralized Justice Department where she'll have to fight through political infestation to confront a swarm of issues, including violent crime, drugs, civil rights, pornography and abortion. The task is so bottomless that maybe her background fits.
She's a certified scuba diver, has canoed all of Florida's waterways, hoists guests up onto the house to show off her roofing job. She wears dutiful Saks suits but prefers the Army-Navy surplus store. The Cabinet post she fills is usually reserved for juiceless white men from distinguished law firms. Even President Clinton's first two female picks -- Zoe Baird, a rich corporate lawyer, and Kimba Wood, a socially prominent New York judge -- seem predictable next to Reno.
"She won't try to fit in with Washington," says Donald Nelson, a former colleague. "Washington is going to have to fit in with her."
Unlike her predecessors, who kept their shirts pressed on the climb up, Reno worked as the Dade County state attorney, tumbling in the muck with prosecutors and federal drug agents. Critics charge that she knows little about federal legal issues beyond criminal law. But then, the nation's top law enforcement officer has spent a career actually fighting crime. In her 15 years as state attorney, Reno grappled with drug cartels, race riots, political sleaze, police brutality and a deluge of immigrants. She kept a listed phone number and got everything from calls for help to death threats.
At 54, she is a tenacious, serious woman who looms so large that behind her back colleagues call her "Bigfoot." But what's most striking about the president's new chief legal adviser are her smaller, 3-by-5 moments. Like the warm Miami nights when Reno would lie in her back yard on the trampoline. She'd recite Coleridge in the moonlight with relatives until she fell asleep, surrounded by 35 pet peacocks, who are all named Horace.
No Free Lunch
Reno lopes into the Justice Department cafeteria on a recent morning, one hand swinging, the other digging through her handbag.
"How're you all today?" She says to startled Justice workers. She grabs a tray and gets in line like anybody else in the first week on a new job. She has descended into the basement, into the institutional gloom of fluorescent light and gray Formica to taste the Orange Blossom Special saluting the attorney general from Florida.
A secretary standing behind her in line blushes as Reno introduces herself. Reno's pink too, still has her Florida tan. She beams in a saw-grass green suit. There are spots on her hands where the sun has bored into her skin. She dips back into her purse, searching for something.
"I'll have the Miami Seafood Jambalaya," Reno says, and a ladleful of gloop pours onto her plate. "This is wonderful!"
Finally, Reno's large hand emerges from her bag, successful, clutching money. She lays down a $5 bill and two singles on her tray as if she's just laid down the law. It's Reno's turn at the register and the cashier says, "Compliments of the manager."
Reno tenses, her rounded shoulders lurch forward. "No, I have to pay, I have to pay," she insists, pushing the bills till the cashier takes them.
Reno will accept no free lunch. As state attorney, she refused discounts on everything from pizzas to new cars. She turned down $5,000-a-year pay raises. When people threatened to take their grievances to the Miami Herald, she'd give them the telephone number. And when former Dade state attorney Richard Gerstein first pitched a job offer to Reno in 1973, she said, "My father was always convinced you were a crook. And I've always been a critic of yours." Gerstein said, "That's just why I want to hire you."
When the Clinton transition team called Jay Hogan, a Miami defense lawyer, "They said, 'Come on, don't you have any dirt?' I said no."
There are so many press tales about Reno's honesty, she jokes about them herself. But after attorneys general like Edwin Meese, who was investigated by three different special prosecutors, no one's taking integrity for granted at Justice.
In the cafeteria, Reno goes to pick up her silverware and just as she relaxes, the manager shoots by her tray and drops off a Florida orange. Reno's jaw sets but she lets it go. "Oh! I don't want a reserved table," she says, spurning the tablecloth spread in her honor.
A group of young lawyers, their ties flipped over their shoulders as they chew on Key West Hot and Spicy Shrimp, take note. Philip Eure, who just shook hands with Reno, says that in the past, the AG would sit at a private table studded with security agents "and you couldn't get within four feet."
These lawyers work in the civil rights division. With Reno at the rudder, they say, things can only get better. During the Reagan-Bush years, the Republicans used Justice to churn out conservative social policy on civil rights, affirmative action and abortion.
"She's an attorney general who's an attorney, not a political hack," says Bob Libman, who like others believes the department has been politicized. If Reno wants to avoid these charges, though, she has to resist pushing Clinton's ideological agenda.
Two tables over, Reno is finishing up lunch with Ricki Seidman, deputy White House communications director. She buses her tray and strides toward the door. Reporters scuttle after her, two steps for Reno's every one. A correspondent calls out, "General!" And Reno pivots and says, "Don't call me General. I don't think generals belong in law." So it's Janet under the exit sign, Janet fielding questions, smiling big, strong-toothed replies.
Yes, people here really want justice. No, she won't buy a winter coat. Yes, she's going to Florida to pack up her stuff. She's flying commercial so she can pay for the trip herself.
What? How can she do that? What about her security detail?
"I don't know," Reno says, now growing impatient. Back in Miami, journalists knew never to push her too far. "I just know I'm going home and I'm paying for it," she says.
She stamps her foot on "paying." It's not a little foot.
The Roots of a Life
The peacocks meow for attention. Mating season's just beginning and soon from this back porch of the Reno Ranch, you'll see the blue and green blur of 35 love-struck birds.
Janet's mother, Jane, bought two peacock eggs in 1946 and named both chicks Horace. Around that time, she started digging the foundation for the house in Kendall, where Janet's father, Henry, had moved the family. It was a remote 21-acre homestead near the Everglades. Reno lived here with her mother until she died in December.
Jane paid for the bricks by selling freelance stories to newspapers. She hired plumbers and electricians, studied their trade, and then finished the work herself. Sometimes Janet and her three siblings helped. "Unload the rest of the brick from the jeep," Jane told them. "And then you can ride the pony."
Inside, no two chairs or glasses match. There are dusty floors, split-log benches and a rusty refrigerator that closes with a latch hook. Next to a necklace of fossilized alligator droppings, sits a bookmark: "Genius Is Never Tidy."
But this is no ramshackle bungalow. A cedar shingle hangs on the porch wall, burned with the inscription Andrew Aug. 24, '92. Torn from the roof by Hurricane Andrew, the shingle was the only damage the house sustained. In her opening statement during the confirmation hearings, Janet Reno said: "About 3 in the morning, as the winds began to howl, my mother waked up -- old and frail and dying. She went and sat in her chair, folded her hands in her lap, and although trees were crashing around the house, as the winds howled she sat there totally unafraid, for she knew how she had built that house."
Janet, or Janny Baby to her family, watched her mother pour cement and learned that "you can do anything you want to, if you put your mind to it." With Henry's country music twanging in the background, Jane taught her daughter how to sauce a lasagna, build a barometer, milk a cow and spout Shakespeare.
Henry Reno was a Danish immigrant who worked as a Miami Herald police reporter for more than 40 years until he died in 1967. He was a gentle man who sneaked sardines to their dogs and brought roses to police secretaries. It was Jane, though, who became a South Florida legend. She was a chain-smoking, beer-chugging journalist who once wrote an article about the Miccosukees and was pronounced an honorary Indian princess.
Janny grew up here with no air conditioning, no fans, no washer or dryer and no television because Jane said it led to "mind rot." They didn't practice religion but they studied the Bible, Greek mythology, the stars. They didn't play with toys but with donkeys and goats and cows and peacocks.
"There was little that was forbidden in that house," says Janet's brother Bob. "You could swing from the rafters." And you really could swing because there is no ceiling, just the cedar beams that Jane had cut.
Janny and her younger siblings -- called Bobby Boy, Maggy Mine and Marky Feller -- depended on each other for amusement. They built Indian lean-tos in the woods and played baseball. Janny wanted to become a major league pitcher. Then a doctor, rancher, marine biologist and foreign service officer. She was the most serious and independent of the brood. She resented having to wear shoes, and she decided to become a lawyer because "I didn't want anybody telling me what to do."
"When we got in trouble, our mother spanked the hell out of us," says Reno's sister, Maggy Hurchalla. "Mark and I resisted arrest, and Bobby -- he'd wear two pair of jeans. But Janet would take responsibility."
When it was time for college, Henry and Jane sold off land to pay for tuition. At Cornell Janny studied chemistry and was president of the women's student government. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963, one of 16 women among more than 500 men, with her mother's motto -- Good, better, best. Don't ever rest, until good is better and better is best -- jangling in her ears.
On her way to the state attorney's office, Reno worked in a couple of law firms and the state legislature. She ran and lost in 1972 for a seat in the Florida House and consoled herself by reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Today, Bob is a columnist for New York Newsday, Maggy is a Martin County commissioner in central Florida, and Mark ferries a tugboat back and forth from Puerto Rico. Now they call their sister General Janny Baby. When they came to Washington for the swearing-in, Maggy borrowed her sister's dresses and confused the FBI.
They gathered in Janny's new apartment overlooking the FBI Building where the chairs do match. They teased her about the dewy-eyed press coverage and wrote a mock Janet Reno profile. "They excoriated me!" Reno says, laughing. She recites a few lines from the satire: "And she says she's an attorney general for the people and here she is in Saks suits. ... She talks about not being a politician, have you ever seen anybody so political in all your life?"
As always, the brothers and sisters sat around the kitchen table, speaking all at once, each trying to talk louder than the next to tell a more interesting tale.
So many to choose from. Mark's summer job in an alligator pit. The sweater Mommy knitted for a snake. The Christmas a peacock fell down the chimney.
At the Reno Ranch, a young woman climbs onto Janet's great slab of a bed. It is a four-poster antique with elephant-thick legs that once belonged to Janet's grandfather.
"I was inherited, kind of like a table," says Daphne Webb. "That's why I'm here." Both of her parents, good friends of Janet's, died by the time Webb started high school. Janet became the guardian for Webb and her twin brother. "We called her Aunt Janny," she says. Janny helped her with school and even gave her advice on boyfriends.
"I was pining away and she told me she was in love once," Webb says, giggling. "Then she joked, 'Who am I to tell you?' "
Reno calls herself "an awkward old maid with a very great affection for men." In 1988, Jack Thompson, an anti-pornography crusader running against her, said Reno was a lesbian. Thompson asked her to check off a box on a questionnaire, indicating her orientation. Reno swung her arm around Thompson and said, "Don't worry, Mr. Thompson. I'm not a homosexual. I'm not bisexual. I love big, strong, handsome, rational, intelligent, kind and sensitive men. And I understand why you might be confused."
Friends and family talk about a male suitor at Harvard Law School. They bring out snapshots of Reno on camping trips with a handsome young man looped through her arm. And they say Reno would have loved to have married and had a family, that it's her life's greatest regret.
"Janny introduced me to Bill Clinton as her child," says Webb. "She said my brother and I are the closest thing she had to children."
Webb liked meeting Clinton, but she loved meeting Vice President Gore. "His eyes are so blue! I love Gore! I love him!" she says, toes curling over the edge of the bed. She even worked up the nerve to talk to Gore. "I said, 'You take care of our Janny!' He said, 'Looks like she's going to take care of us.' "
Reno has seen fire before. In 1980 an all-white jury acquitted five police officers in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance man. Reno had put all five defendants on at the same time and lost. Enraged teens gutted and looted the first three floors of the Dade justice building. From her sixth-floor office, Reno watched the city burn. The crowd chanted "Reno! Reno!" Eighteen people died.
There were death threats and she couldn't sleep at home for nearly a month. Reno responded by meeting with black leaders. "People would holler at me, but I kept going back," says Reno.
"She went from being one of the most vilified public officials to one of the most revered in the black community," says H.T. Smith, a prominent black attorney and a critic turned supporter. Reno marched with her mother in the parade for Martin Luther King Jr., says Smith, and drew bigger ovations than Muhammad Ali. A female rap artist even wrote a song in her honor.
Black leaders now praise her reforms, including a special drug court that offers rehabilitation to nonviolent offenders. The program, which has been copied by 25 other jurisdictions, shows her emphasis on using the justice process to get at the root causes of crime, such as teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, substandard housing. Never a great trial lawyer, she excelled as an administrator. When the state attorney's office first hired her in 1973, Seymour Gelber, the administrative assistant, figured he'd "throw her in the swamp" of the juvenile court system. "I thought she'd be lost in the morass and never emerge," says Gelber, now mayor of Miami Beach. "Instead, weeks later, she tossed an outline on my desk for a whole new system."
Prosecutors now contemplate the management style of their former boss, known as "JR," "The Tall One" or "Her Tallness." She looked after her assistants, attended family funerals and birthday parties. She allowed them extra leave to see their kids in school plays. But everyone still feared Reno's "Black Book," a small notebook in which she scribbled down their assignments. And when she stared down her glasses at you icily, you could feel your scalp turn red. Once she lost her patience with a group of judges, called them "a bunch of dunderheads" and walked out of the room. "She's a hard lady," says Gelber. "She can flare up." One time, when they were sparring on the telephone, Gelber suggested: "Janet, why don't you hang up the phone and open a window and we can shout at each other across town?"
Kathy Rundle, the new state attorney, is sitting at Reno's old desk, picking at her salad with long fingernails. Rundle is a small woman with long hair and lots of gold bangles. She praises Reno, stopping mid-sentence to apply fresh lipstick.
"Takes time to get adjusted to sitting here," says Rundle, her feet dangling. "The seat needs to be lowered."
It's not that Reno has shrunk. It's just that the ceilings at Justice are so high. The walls soar on either side of her as she leads you to her new office.
"I figured I'm going to spend all my waking hours here," she says. Some sleeping hours too. Reno discovered a hideaway bed in the other room and she's bringing in her sleeping bag, the one she sacked out on late nights in her Miami office.
Domestic violence, children's issues, drugs, violent crime -- some of the problems she'll focus on, she says. "I want to remember what it's like to canoe the Everglades and to do everything possible to protect them," Reno says. "I want to remember the lady who calls me on a Sunday night, screaming 'How am I going pay my rent?' "
She's smooth on public issues, confident and well rehearsed. But swivel the lights round onto the personal and Reno picks at her cuticles, rubs her neck, twists her wrists. Although once denied a job at a law firm because she is a woman, she says she hasn't had trouble winning respect from male colleagues. ("I never really thought of Janet in terms of a gender," says Roy Black, a Miami defense attorney.)
"I never characterized myself as a feminist," Reno says. Who needed feminism when your mom wrestled alligators? "She wasn't afraid of anything," she says. One day Reno came home to an empty house, found drops of blood on the porch and this sign, "Beware: Bad Alligator in Kitchen." "I knew immediately what had happened," Reno says. "Mother somehow had let the alligator bite her. She was at the hospital to get her finger sewed." Meanwhile, there was an alligator crouching in the fireplace.
Today on that fireplace mantelpiece rests a box that holds Jane Reno's ashes. The children plan to scatter them on Biscayne Bay, where they all sailed together. It was Jane's illness that prevented Reno from accepting, when a transition team member first approached her last fall about a Cabinet position. Reno told him she wouldn't leave Miami while her mother was alive.
The day after Jane died, the inquiries resumed. President Clinton wanted her for a senior position, possibly national drug policy director. "I never thought I'd be attorney general," Reno says. "I thought this was too remote."
She examines a portrait of Robert Kennedy on her wall. "The office is full of history," she says, seemingly humbled. Below the portrait, logs and crumpled newspaper fill the fireplace, waiting for a match.