Janet Reno came along at just the right time. Bill Clinton's fledgling Administration had stumbled through two embarrassing appointment episodes (see Nannygate story), and he had yet to name—as expected—the nation's first female Attorney General. Then in February the President ended his agonizing search by nominating the zealous prosecutor from Miami. She had a stellar reputation for integrity—and no children.
There was only one problem. Reno, 55, was also, ahem, unmarried. But she confronted the whispers directly with a self-deprecating assessment: "I'm just an awkward old maid with a very great attraction to men." Such frank talk didn't surprise Janny Reno's Florida friends. They knew how tough she could be. This was, after all, a woman who had once wrestled alligators for sport in the Everglades. And as Dade County prosecutor, her crackdown on deadbeat dads was so unyielding, it inspired a rap song named "Janet Reno." ("She caught you down on 15th Street, trying to hide your tail/She fined your ass and locked you up. Now who can't post no bail?") Besides, it wasn't exactly correct to call Reno childless. When her close friend Fran Webb died of liver disease a decade ago, Reno became guardian of Webb's teenage twins, Dan and Daphne.
Reno's nomination sailed through the Senate, and her reputation grew last April when an attempt by federal agents to end the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, led to an inferno that left as many as 86 cult members dead (see Sequels). As other officials—including her boss, the President—scrambled for spin control, Reno faced the fallout. "The responsibility lies with me," she declared.
Washington swooned; a star was born. Soon such celebrities as Barbra Streisand were flocking to meet the tall (6'2") buck-stopping hero. Reno thinks it's easy to explain her appeal. "I'm not fancy," she says. "I'm what I appear to be."
But lately her luster has dimmed. An independent review of the Waco disaster concluded in November that Reno's decision to use tear gas against the cult helped trigger the tragic ending. Hollywood has bridled over her efforts to curb TV violence. And some wonder if needed reforms at Justice are being neglected as Reno campaigns for a new "agenda for children," by which she hopes to stop crime by reinforcing the family through social programs she has no authority to implement. Though Reno's freelancing irritated Administration officials, Clinton has been reluctant to rein in his most popular employee.
For her part, America's top law officer offers no apologies. She often tells listeners that by tackling tough issues, she is simply following the advice of her beloved mother, Jane, who died last year at the age of 79: "Don't ever rest until good is better and better is best."
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