When Congress created the position of attorney general in 1789, it called for "a meet person learned in the law" to argue cases before the Supreme Court and render legal opinions to the executive branch. In the ensuing 203 years, 76 men held the office. Janet Reno was thus unique the day she took the oath.

Unique as well were the circumstances that brought her there. Endeavoring to fulfill a presidential vow to have "the most ethical administration" in American history, President Clinton chose an outsider not steeped either in the establishment teapot (other than her youthful years at Cornell University and Harvard Law School) or in the federal law enforcement cauldron. This was not George Washington and Ronald Reagan selecting their personal lawyers, or John Kennedy appointing his younger brother. Nor was it Wall Street goes to Washington or a political counselor suddenly ennobled--a common background choice in previous administrations. No, Clinton's choice was a staunch, upright, credible, locally elected prosecutor from Dade County, Fla., who lived with her mother in the kind of house you might expect to come across in the overgrowth of the Everglades, and who went to work every morning in Miami to focus on youth crime prevention.

Reno's term as attorney general has key distinct aspects: She is one of very few who have been frequently at odds with--or at least at a relative distance from--their presidents. John Crittenden did join the mass Cabinet resignation from John Tyler's administration in 1841, and Nixon's nominee William Saxbe must be the only attorney general who responded to a presidential order in 1974 by telling the president through an aide to "piss up a rope." But Reno has employed the independent counsel law to generate endless investigations of both Clinton and the first lady as well as of five Clinton Cabinet members, with only one of those targets convicted to date. She has had to sit by, watching an impeachment and trial process sort out official presidential lies about unofficial and very personal acts. Unlike Andrew Johnson's attorney general, she was not asked to resign her office in order to represent the president during trial on the impeachment articles.

Unique, too, is the post Reno assumed at the head of the Justice Department. Few realize that for the first 80 years of our history, an attorney general had no department to administer and was permitted to continue practicing law. The Department of Justice was not even formed until 1870, and it grew quite slowly during the next 100 years. Today, Reno, the boss of 123,000 people, administers a $21 billion annual budget. (Less than four decades ago, Robert Kennedy ran his department on less than 2 percent of that sum.) And, during Reno's tenure alone, her legal monolith has grown like the tubercles of a prickly pear cactus, increasing its expenditures by 62 percent and adding 25 percent more employees to carry out growing assignments and responsibilities.

So how do we assess this woman, who has served longer than any other attorney general in history?

On a daily basis, Reno faces daunting administrative challenges. But shouldn't we expect our nation's legal leader to focus upon loftier ideals as well? If you walk past the traditions expressed in the halls of the Justice Department, as I first did as a junior lawyer chasing organized crime in 1961, an almost sacred awe grips you. All of us, I then thought, bear the collective mandate of helping to bring law, justice and order to a nation of free people. Almost 40 years on, I still hope that history will judge the attorney general primarily on that fundamental question: How has Reno handled the mandate of justice?

First, let's examine how she has performed as a manager and in responding to new criminal threats. Reno has served the principle of equality well by removing gender as an issue of job qualification and performance in the country's top executive legal post. A profession that awards less than 20 percent of its partnerships in large law firms to women can learn from this example.

But she has not been able to share in the challenges and glory that history brought to many of her recent predecessors. Robert Kennedy sent a group of Justice Department lawyers (of whom I was one) to Mississippi and elsewhere in the segregated South in 1964 to help blacks obtain the basic rights denied them in the Jim Crow era: the right to vote, the right to handle money as a cashier at a cafeteria, the right to stay at a Holiday Inn, the right to have paved roads in their neighborhoods. Elliot Richardson inspired a nation by saying "I resign" when Richard Nixon ordered him to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nicholas Katzenbach could, when he was deputy attorney general, confront Alabama governor George Wallace on the steps of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, letting black students share the 'Bama traditions and educational opportunities for the first time.

Most of the crises and priorities for Reno, though, have been situational, rather than institutional or constitutional; she has met those challenges well. The tragic bombing deaths in Oklahoma City, the abortion clinic bombings and the wider threat of terrorism could have panicked the nation. The attorney general has handled each incident with her reassuring reaffirmation of the power of law over terror.

One challenge, still in its historic infancy, is the onset of cyber-crime and the threat cyber-terrorists pose to our government's infrastructure, military and intelligence activities. Reno has responded with quiet firmness to this potentially destructive criminal force, especially by bringing her non-federal background to bear in emphasizing multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional cooperation and interaction, such as her creation of the National Infrastructure Protection Center.

The global economy has brought another challenge: the globalization of criminal activity, including threats to the integrity of intellectual property and securities markets. Reno has worked hard to extend the cooperative reach of historically insular law enforcement agencies and to complete an unprecedented number of long-projected, but long-frustrated, negotiations to execute or enforce extradition treaties and mutual legal assistance treaties, such as the talks recently completed with Israel, the United States and France. Domestically, in response to a 1995 General Accounting Office criticism that attorneys general of the past 10 years have failed to establish formal priorities, Reno has emphasized prosecution and civil recoveries in health care fraud and in all federal jurisdiction crimes that affect children.

As with many of her predecessors, the political realities of her time have saddled Reno with an almost impossible mission. Just as law enforcement was instructed to enforce alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933, so too has Reno built up a military-law enforcement complex to try to interdict all illegal drugs and control all illegal border crossings. This effort dominates her budget, the federal prosecutors and the federal prisons, and its semi-futility has led her to explore the alternative paths of treatment and drug courts. It's unlikely that history will render a kind verdict on the war on drugs; we should recognize that Reno has been pulled onto paths that may be dead ends but that politicians, presidents and, apparently, the public demand.

But there are three issues for which Reno's tenure may be best remembered, and the jury is still hearing the facts on all of them. One is the controversy, recently reignited, over the FBI's 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., just five weeks after Reno assumed the position of attorney general. The second is her response to allegations about illegal domestic and foreign contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign, on which Reno overruled both her own chief prosecutor and the FBI director and stubbornly refused to approve the appointment of an independent counsel to look into the matter. And third is the continuing dispute over Chinese spies and the possible theft of nuclear warhead secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

As a result--and ironically--this nonpolitical, straightforward, honest woman has received a torrent of abuse for being "political." And ironically as well, the potential advantages of her background as an outsider have disappeared in the cross-fire over these crises.

Indeed, Reno's failures in these three dominant challenges illustrate her lack of experience and background in Washington's machinations, and in day-to-day federal law enforcement as well as her lack of the intuition that is so crucial to the attorney general's role.

It was the limitations of her background that let Janet Reno leave the Waco control room in Washington to give a speech in Baltimore just as the FBI was planning the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound. That and her subsequent decision to avoid appointing an outsider to lead the original Waco investigation--a primarily internal investigation whose inadequacies have created the present crisis--reflect her ignorance of the FBI's contentious, self-serving history with department leaders. And better political judgment, in its nonpartisan sense, would have led her to an early request for an independent counsel to examine the huge range of political contribution allegations. So, too, would a federal enforcement background have led her to respond much earlier to the potential dynamite of the Los Alamos affair.

Reno deserves neither vilification nor a pedestal. She has meant well, done her best, devoted her life selflessly to her job, and met many challenges with grace, honesty and forthright action. In her extraordinarily long tenure, she has passed the test better than many attorney generals, not as well as others. So, too, with most who venture into the pit.

She certainly has served the country well in upholding the principles of the rule of law and maintaining an ordered society. But a true sense of justice has slipped sideways for the past seven years. Our privacy is disappearing. Our imprisonment rate is the highest in the world. Our prosecutors have too much power. And our faith in the credibility of the U.S. Department of Justice is failing. That is why history in the end may give negative ratings to Janet Reno.

Henry Ruth, a Watergate special prosecutor, worked under three attorneys general and helped guide the independent investigation ordered by then-Treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen after the ATF's raid at Waco, Tex.