Janet Reno was sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 1993, becoming the first woman to hold the position of United States attorney general. CreditBarry Thumma/Associated Press
Janet Reno, who rose from a rustic life on the edge of the Everglades to become attorney general of the United States — the first woman to hold the job — and whose eight years in that office placed her in the middle of some of the most divisive episodes of the Clinton presidency, died on Monday at age 78.
She died at her home in Miami-Dade County, Fla., from complications of Parkinson’s disease, according to her sister, Margaret Hurchalla. The disease was diagnosed in November 1995, while she was still in office.
Ms. Reno’s tenure as attorney general was bracketed by two explosive events: a deadly federal raid on the compound of a religious cult in Waco, Tex., in 1993, and the seizing in 2000 by federal agents of Elián González, a young Cuban refugee who was at the center of an international custody battle and a political tug of war.
In those moments, and others in between, Ms. Reno was applauded for a straightforward integrity and a willingness to accept responsibility, but she was also fiercely criticized. Republicans accused her of protecting President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore when, in 1997, she refused to allow an independent counsel to investigate allegations of fund-raising improprieties in the White House.
After leaving office, she mounted a surprise though unsuccessful bid in Florida in 2002 to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of President George W. Bush, amid the resentment of Cuban-Americans in South Florida over her negotiating for the return of Elián to Cuba.
Ms. Reno was never part of the Clinton inner circle, even though she served in the Clinton cabinet for two terms, longer than any attorney general in the previous 150 years. She was a latecomer to the team, and her political and personal style clashed with the president’s, particularly as she sought to maintain some independence from the White House.
Her relations with the president were further strained by her decision to let an independent inquiry into a failed Clinton land deal in Arkansas, the so-called Whitewater investigation, expand to encompass Mr. Clinton’s sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky, an episode that led to his impeachment.
Mr. Clinton and his allies thought that Ms. Reno was too quick to refer to special counsels in the Lewinsky matter and other cases of suspect administration behavior. The president let her dangle in the public eye for weeks before announcing in December 1996, after his resounding re-election, that she would remain for his second term.
Bill Clinton named Ms. Reno United States attorney general in 1993. She was never part of the Clinton inner circle, however, even though she served in the Clinton cabinet for two terms.CreditRobert Giroux/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Ms. Reno was never a natural fit in Washington’s backslapping, highly competitive culture. At weekly news conferences in the barrel-vaulted conference room outside her office in the Justice Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue, she was fond of telling reporters that she would “do the right thing” on legal issues and judge them according to “the law and the facts.”
Imposing at 6-foot-1, awkward in manner and blunt in her probity, she became a regular foil for late-night comics and a running gag on “Saturday Night Live.” But she got the joke, proving it by gamely appearing on the show to lampoon her image.
The comedy could not obscure her law-enforcement accomplishments. Ms. Reno presided over the Justice Department in a time of economic growth, falling crime rates and mounting security threats to the nation by forces both foreign and domestic.
Under Ms. Reno, the agency initiated prosecutions in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, helping to lay the groundwork for the pursuit of terrorists in the 21st century.
The Reno Justice Department also prosecuted spies like the C.I.A. mole Aldrich H. Ames; it filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft, a milestone in the new-technology era; and it sued the tobacco industry to reclaim federal health care dollars spent on treating illnesses caused by smoking.
Ms. Reno was a strong advocate of guaranteeing federal protection to women seeking abortions and safeguarding abortion clinics that were under threat.
But in some areas she seemed conflicted about the law. She opposed the death penalty, for example, but repeatedly authorized her prosecutors to ask juries to impose it.
When she took office, she endorsed the use of independent counsels to investigate administration figures. But she later testified against renewing the law governing their use, saying it did nothing to take politics out of the inquiries.
Before becoming attorney general, Ms. Reno was the Dade County state attorney for 14 years, a period when the Miami area was growing rapidly and experiencing rising drug-related crime, widening racial divisions, demoralizing police corruption and waves of immigration from Cuba.
Ms. Reno during a news conference at the Justice Department in 1995.CreditPaul Hosefros/The New York Times
Mr. Clinton, committed to naming a woman as attorney general, settled on Ms. Reno after his first choices — the corporate lawyer Zoe Baird and the federal judge Kimba Wood — withdrew their names in the face of criticism after it was revealed that they had employed undocumented immigrants as nannies.
“I’m just delighted to be here, and I’m going to try my level best,” Ms. Reno said at the Rose Garden ceremony at which Mr. Clinton announced her nomination on Feb. 11, 1993.
Two months later, she gained the nation’s full attention in a dramatic televised news conference in which she took full responsibility for a botched federal raid of the Waco compound of an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, the Branch Davidians.
The assault, after a long siege involving close to 900 military and law-enforcement personnel and a dozen tanks, left the compound in flames and the group’s charismatic leader, David Koresh, as well as about 75 others, dead, one-third of whom were children.
Ms. Reno’s candor was viewed as refreshing in a city where blame-shifting is the norm, and it gave her sudden celebrity status in the new administration.
The luster faded quickly. Within weeks, Ms. Reno faced tough questions about the raid and her claim that children were being abused at the compound. She was also faulted for failing to influence an important crime bill. By the end of her first year in office, she was facing mounting scrutiny in the news media.
With Mr. Clinton’s re-election and his decision to keep Ms. Reno at her post, Republicans began questioning her independence when she resisted their calls for a special counsel to look into allegations that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore had broken campaign fund-raising laws in 1996.
The clamor, led by the House speaker, Newt Gingrich, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, grew when it was disclosed that Louis J. Freeh, the head of the F.B.I., who had had a tortured relationship with Ms. Reno, also favored a special counsel.
Ms. Reno would not budge, saying her stance had nothing to do with protecting the president. A review of the evidence, she said, convinced her that a special counsel was not warranted.
Ms. Reno testified in Washington in 2004 before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.CreditDennis Cook/Associated Press
“Let me be absolutely clear,” Ms. Reno told hostile Republican questioners during one of several hearings on Capitol Hill about the call for a special counsel. “I’m not going to violate my oath in this matter because of pressure from any quarter, not from the media, not from Congress, nor from anywhere else.”
Questions about her handling of the Waco raid resurfaced in 1999, when new evidence suggested that the F.B.I. might have started the fire that destroyed the compound.
The revelation further soured her dealings with Mr. Freeh, with whom she had been close early in her tenure, but he let it be known that he favored a special counsel in the fund-raising case and a new inquiry into Waco. She sent marshals to F.B.I. headquarters to seize a tape of communications made the day of the assault.
Her final and perhaps most personal crisis as head of the Justice Department was the case involving Elián González, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who was found floating on an inner tube off the coast of Florida after his mother and 10 others drowned in a failed crossing from Cuba by small boat.
The boy became a unifying figure among Cuban exiles in South Florida, who were determined to see him remain in the United States in defiance of the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.
Ms. Reno favored returning Elián to his father in Cuba, and she became immersed in negotiations over his fate because of her ties to Miami.
Ms. Reno was on the phone almost up to the moment agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service burst into the Miami home of Elián’s relatives and took him away at gunpoint. Congressional Republicans and many Cuban exiles were outraged. Some in Miami said Ms. Reno would be in danger if she returned there after her service in Washington.
Early in 2001, however, she did go home, her service finished. She said she was excited about a red pickup truck she had bought.
Janet Reno was born in Miami, on the edge of the Everglades, on July 21, 1938, to Henry Olaf Reno and the former Jane Wood. Her father, born Henry Rasmussen in Denmark, came to the United States in 1913 with his own mother and father, who chose the name Reno off a map, believing it sounded more American.
Ms. Reno during a taping of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in Burbank, Calif., in 2002.CreditRic Francis/Associated Press
Henry Reno was a police reporter in Dade County for more than 40 years. Jane Wood, born in Georgia, was an eccentric naturalist who would have a profound effect on Ms. Reno.
“Outspoken, outrageous, absolutely indifferent to others’ opinions, Janet Reno was truly one of a kind,” Paul Anderson, a former Miami Herald reporter, wrote in his biography of her. It was her mother who had wrestled small alligators, though the stunt was sometimes erroneously ascribed to the attorney general.
Ms. Reno, the eldest of four siblings, was about eight when her parents bought 21 acres bordering the Everglades and moved there. Her mother, who had no construction experience, built the family home. “She dug the foundation with her own hands, with a pick and shovel,” Ms. Reno told senators at her confirmation hearing in 1993.
It was a rustic life; peacocks and other creatures roamed the property, and Janet and her siblings — Robert, Mark and Margaret — cavorted barefoot. But she also glimpsed a more sophisticated world: After junior high school, she traveled to Europe to stay with an uncle, a military judge, as he presided over a spy trial.
Her sister, Ms. Hurchalla, who is known as Maggy, survives her, as do seven nieces and nephews. Her brother Robert, a former columnist for Newsday on Long Island, died in 2012 at 72. Her brother Mark had an adventurer’s life: game warden, boat and oil supply ship captain, alligator wrestler, scuba diver, paratrooper as well as carpenter and bailiff at the Miami-Dade Justice Building. He died in 2014.
After finishing high school in Miami, Ms. Reno attended Cornell University, graduating in 1960 with a degree in chemistry. She won admission to Harvard Law School and graduated in 1963, one of a handful of women in her class of more than 500.
Seeking to practice law in South Florida, Ms. Reno was turned down by one of the state’s best known law firms, Steel, Hector & Davis, and went to work for a smaller firm instead. She became active in local Democratic politics and met a fellow Harvard graduate, Gerald Lewis, a lawyer with electoral aspirations. Ms. Reno helped him win a state House seat in 1966, and the two opened a general practice law firm together.
Ms. Reno entered government service in 1971 as general counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives, where she worked on a difficult overhaul of Florida’s courts. Her work in Tallahassee, the capital, whetted her appetite for public office, and she campaigned for a state legislative seat of her own the next year. She lost in an upset to a Republican candidate helped by the landslide re-election victory of President Richard M. Nixon.
Ms. Reno did not wait long for her next opportunity. The day after her defeat, Richard Gerstein, the state attorney for Dade County, offered her a job on his staff. As she told The Miami Herald, she expressed reservations in her characteristically straightforward manner.
Ms. Reno in her office in 1998. Under her leadership, the agency launched prosecutions in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, helping to lay the groundwork for the pursuit of terrorists in the 21st century.CreditSusan Walsh/Associated Press
“My father was always convinced you were a crook,” she said she told Mr. Gerstein. “And I’ve always been a critic of yours.”
Mr. Gerstein replied that those were the reasons he wanted to hire her. Within a few years, she was Mr. Gerstein’s chief assistant.
Ms. Reno left the prosecutor’s office in May 1976 to join Steel, Hector & Davis, the firm that had rejected her out of law school. But her tenure there was short-lived.
After Mr. Gerstein announced that he would resign in early 1978, after 21 years in the office, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed her interim state attorney, choosing her from about 50 candidates. She was the first woman to hold the title of state attorney in Florida and one of the few in the nation’s history to be responsible for such a large jurisdiction.
Ms. Reno retained the post through a thicket of drug, murder and corruption cases. In one, she was accused of being anti-police when she prosecuted five Miami officers in the beating death of a black insurance executive after a traffic stop; the officers, she said, had tried to make it look like an accident.
The officers were acquitted — one by the presiding judge in the trial, held in Tampa, and the others by an all-white jury — provoking criticism of her legal strategy and four days of deadly riots in Miami’s predominantly black Liberty City neighborhood.
To quell the furor, Ms. Reno undertook an outreach effort that restored some support among Miami’s black citizens. She remained state attorney through five election campaigns — until February 1993, when the White House called.
Ms. Reno was formally nominated to be attorney general that same month, just a few weeks after the death of her mother, Jane, the guiding influence in her life. She invoked her mother’s memory in her remarks that day at the White House in a Rose Garden ceremony with Mr. Clinton.
“My mother always told me to do my best,” she said, “to think my best and to do right.”