Janet Reno Emerges From Waco Disaster a Folk Hero


Since taking responsibility for the federal action that ended in a fiery disaster at a cult compound in Waco, Tex., Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has emerged as a folk hero, the closest thing the Clinton Cabinet has to a star.

The federal assault she authorized precipitated the mass deaths of the Branch Davidian cult. But ironically her stock soared anyway as a result of her refreshing “buck stops here” attitude.

She captured television audiences during marathon post-Waco interviews and won admiration for cowing a hostile congressional interrogator. Now there are even suggestions she should be considered for higher office.

One such hint came this month at the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee. “I know from friends in the White House that they think if there were an election tomorrow . . . I won’t complete the sentence,” said the organization’s president, Alfred H. Moses, as he introduced Reno, the evening’s keynote speaker.


The audience got the point, reacting with apparent glee and lengthy applause.

Reno remains nonplussed by the fuss, even wary of it, pointing out that such adulation can be short-lived.

“I know how fragile praise can be, and that two weeks from now I may have to make a politically unpopular decision and I won’t be the talk of the town anymore, except in a pejorative way,” she said in a recent interview.

Despite her 15 years of experience as an elected state attorney in politically volatile Dade County, Fla., Reno knows she still must prove herself in Washington’s bureaucratic waters.

In addition to running an organization as powerful and complex as the U.S. Justice Department, she could soon be faced with the thorny question of how much influence the White House should be allowed to exert in her direction. Furthermore, she comes to the department with a ambitious--and potentially controversial--agenda for change.

The issue of White House influence arises because six of the top 10 department officials nominated by President Clinton have ties to him, to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton or Vice President Al Gore, rather than to Reno--an unusually high number when compared with recent Republican and Democratic administrations.

Among the most notable are Associate Atty. Gen.-designate Webster Hubbell, a law partner of Hillary Clinton in Little Rock, Ark., and a golfing partner of the chief executive; and Walter Dellinger, who had been associate counsel to Clinton before being named assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, an influential post dubbed “the attorney general’s lawyer.”

Eleanor Dean Acheson, who has been selected to head the department’s office of policy development, at least in part attributes her appointment to the “amazing serendipity of having joined somebody named Hillary Rodham in what passed for political disruption and civil disobedience at Wellesley College in 1969.”


A knowledgeable Justice Department official could recall only one case in which Reno deviated from the White House list of suggested nominees, by selecting Gerald Torres as assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division.

But Reno, in the interview, noted that she first heard of Torres from White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

Past attorneys general differ on how much White House influence is too much.

Griffin B. Bell, President Jimmy Carter’s first attorney general, contended, for example, that an “arms length” relationship was crucial, given a typical White House’s penchant for politics, particularly at election time. William French Smith, who served under President Ronald Reagan, opted for more collegiality.


In any case, it is clear that the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House must be different from that of any other Cabinet-level department. Justice is, after all, responsible for upholding the law, no matter how high in an Administration a violator may be.

Reno contended her concerns over top department nominees were “considered and honored” by the White House, a process she described as “good give-and-take.” As for collegiality vs. arms length, “I think people will tell you from Miami that I could be very collegial but cussedly independent,” she said. “I think the designees at this point have a great deal of independence and knowledge of the Administration that will stand us in good stead,” Reno said.

“I’ve got to give the White House the best legal advice I can,” Reno said, acknowledging, “there are small issues where people could go either way.” She said, however, that should the White House attempt to intervene on a “matter of deep-seated principle--and I don’t envision that would happen--I would say, ‘Mr. President, I’ll go home to Florida.’ ”

Reno clearly endorses using the “bully pulpit” platform provided by her attorney general post and her favorable reception here and around the country to bring about change.


“I think people want to hear me, so that gives me an opportunity to discuss the agendas I think are important,” she said. Reno defines these as “the balance between punishment and (crime) prevention, focusing on what we can do to make federal law responsive to the needs of children in America, and civil justice reform.”

But Reno said she wants to do “a thoughtful analysis of these issues that isn’t dependent on (personal) political popularity, because I know that is fragile and sometimes of short duration. I would prefer to persuade people based on the facts, as much information as I can provide, common sense logic,” and the question that she told Justice Department employees she wants to be paramount: “What is the right thing to do?”

The ambition of Reno’s interest in change is illustrated by her comments about what might be done at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, one of the most troubled agencies under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department.

Attorneys general before her have pledged reforms there but fallen short of delivering them.


“We’ve got to take a very long look at how we balance a nation of immigrants and a tradition of immigration with the burdens that immigration is placing on so many aspects of the community: schools, public hospitals, the prisons,” she said, recalling a statistic she cites repeatedly these days: Approximately 26% of those in federal prisons are aliens.

“How do we speed up immigration hearings while doing it so that the process won’t get reversed because we didn’t do it according to the law or the Constitution?”

Reno has been making speeches on these and other weighty topics at the rate of one a day recently, delivering them, unlike her predecessor William P. Barr, without a prepared text or even notes.

A department official who has worked closely with Reno attributes her ability to speak extemporaneously on complex subjects to her “confidence in her judgments.”


He added that she has “the same confidence in her moral judgments. That is what allows her to completely be herself and to react so quickly.”

That certainty may also be behind another change she has brought to the attorney general’s post.

Unlike her predecessors, Barr and Dick Thornburgh, who traveled almost exclusively by FBI jet, Reno is flying on commercial airliners whenever she can.

Last weekend, she returned to Miami for a college commencement address on a commercial flight accompanied by her FBI security detail.


Barr used the FBI jet on the advice of his security detail, but also contended it was less costly than if the government paid for bodyguards to accompany him on a commercial flight. But Reno said she has had the FBI run the numbers again and that preliminary results indicate a commercial flight is cheaper--at least to Miami.

“I ought to minimize expenses wherever I can,” she said. Moreover, she plans to pay for the flight to her hometown of Miami. “I’m trying to pay for my ticket just so nobody will say, ‘You created a reason for going to Miami.’ ”

Although Reno did not mention it, the practice of devising business reasons for traveling to hometowns or cities where family members live was among the ethical criticisms directed at FBI Director William S. Sessions by an internal Justice Department report.

In another of the major challenges she will face early in her tenure, Reno is expected to meet with Sessions soon about the report and recommend to Clinton whether he should be removed from office.


More than costs underlie Reno’s break with past security practices. Paying her first visit to the Justice Department’s community relations service, she recently traveled to its Maryland headquarters, outside the District of Columbia, by subway.

“I want to cause people as little fuss as possible,” she said. “Besides, I love the Metro, and I’d like to do it more often.”