'General Janny Baby'

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

RENO FAMILY LEGENDS TEND TO sound like tail tales. For starters, there's the one about Janet and the hog. Several years ago, Janet's young niece Karin was trying to feed one when it grabbed her by the coat. "Janny ran out and punched that hog right between the eyes," says Janet's brother Mark. "She's always been one to take on challenges."

That's Janny, as in Janet Reno, newly sworn in as the first female Attorney General in U.S. history. Don't be deceived by her businesslike manner: She is probably the most colorful figure in the new Clinton Cabinet. At 6'½", the Florida native has wrestled alligators with Miccosukee Indians and explored her state's swamp country—good preparation for the tough issues she faces, such as abortion violence (see page II) and the threat ol urban terrorism following the recent World Trade Center bombing. Reno, as state attorney for Dade County—which includes Miami—has never shunned controversy. Nor is she fazed at being the "first woman" anything. "My mother always told me to do my best, to think my best and to do right—and consider myself a person," she said after President Clinton announced her nomination.

Reno brings with her a reputation for accessibility and integrity. In Florida she refused an official car, preferring to drive a battered Chevy Celebrity. She kept a listed home phone number, and she consistently refused pay raises and returned unused campaign contributions. Transplanted to Washington, she has already brought some of her earthy style to the Justice Department. Unlike her predecessors, she insists on wearing her ID badge at all limes. "I go through the metal detector like everybody else," she says. "It's only fair." And rather than insisting she be addressed by the traditional "General," she says, "Call me 'Hey, you!' or call me Janet, but don't call me General."

Reno's three younger siblings, however, have taken to calling her "General Janny Baby." The Renos have always been an irreverent crew. The four of them—Janet, 54; Robert, 53, a columnist for New York Newsday; Maggy, 52, one of five commissioners of Martin County, Fla.; and Mark, 51, a captain on a boat in an oil field off Nigeria—were all born in Coconut Grove. Their father, Henry Reno, a Danish immigrant, became a police reporter at the Miami Herald, and his wife, Jane Wood Reno, was a writer for the now defunct Miami News. In 1946 the family bought 21 acres on what was then the edge of the Everglades. Reno has lived there ever since in the cedar-and-brick house that her mother built. Together the family camped, visited the Everglades' Miccosukee Indians (Janet's mother was made an honorary Miccosukee Princess) and recited poetry. The Renos have dived, sailed or canoed almost even wet inch of their home state.

Reno studied chemistry at Cornell University, then went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1963 as one of only 16 women in a class of 500. She returned to Miami to pursue her law career, working in both private practice and as staff director of the Florida House Judiciary Committee. In 1978 she was appointed Dade stale attorney. Re-elected four times, Reno was the first Florida prosecutor to assign lawyers to collect child-support payments from deadbeat dads. She also crusaded for children's rights and established the innovative Miami drug court (where Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother Hugh works). "She was dogmatic in her determination to get to the truth," says Buddy McKay, lieutenant governor of Florida. "But she also showed great compassion for those who were victims of crime."

She is not without critics, however. Some charge that she has not pursued high-level corruption and civil rights cases fiercely enough. In 1980, for instance, when an all-white Tampa jury refused to convict five white policemen in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance man, the verdict set off three days of rioting. Rioters shouted "Reno! Reno!" as they torched the Liberty City section of Miami. In response, Reno reached out to her black constituents, attending community dinners and beginning a personal tradition of marching in the annual Martin Luther King Day parade. Nowadays, some fans chant "Jan-et, Jan-et" as she passes.

Reno's rise to Attorney General comes with a note of sadness. Her widowed mother, Jane, with whom she lived for years, died of lung cancer Dec. 21 at the age of 79. During Jane's final days, Reno and her sister, Maggy, look her traveling around the Americas, fulfilling her final wishes. When Reno talks of her mother now, her voice breaks. She is proud, she says, that she was able "to see that she had a good time."

Reno has also, on occasion, expressed regret that she never married and had children, saying, "I am just an awkward old maid with a very great attraction to men." But she is the focal point of a large and loving family, including seven nieces and nephews and a grandniece, who are counting on her to make it back home as often as possible. They look to Reno, after all, to run their meetings of the East Everglades Wild Hog Hunting and Drama Society and to cook up tureens of chicken soup. She may be General Janny Baby, but she is also, in the words of an old friend, retired Miami Herald columnist Jack Anderson, "just Janet, a damn good citizen and lady."

MEG GRANT in Miami and GARRY CLIFFORD in Washington With additional reporting by CINDY DAMPIER and DON SIDER

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