Remembering Janet Reno: A Back-to-Basics Politician

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Natalia Holliday, Staff Writer

If you were anything like me in 2000, you spent a lot more time stuffing your mouth with Warheads until your tongue sizzled than you did paying attention to first female Attorney General Janet Reno.[1] In fact, maybe your only vague recollection of Reno is the Saturday Night Live skit, “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” starring Will Ferrell as Reno.[2] Perhaps hers is a new name altogether.

For me, news of her death on Monday, from complications in her battle with Parkinson’s Disease,[3] brought a momentary sadness, due entirely to the SNL skit. As a lover of the sketch comedy show, her name became a staple in my comedic sensibilities.

It is an unfortunate association, as research of her life and tenure as Attorney General reveals the story of a formidable, tenacious woman who deeply valued integrity and personal accountability. In remembrance of a woman about whom I knew very little prior to her death, here are some highlights to guide others past the parodies.


No, not fashion sense. Reno’s personal style of addressing issues was straightforward. She knew who she was, she knew her opinions, but she knew to distinguish between her personal beliefs from the law.

The Feb. 11, 1993, press conference for her official nomination by President Bill Clinton illustrated this when a questioner asked her views on the death penalty.[4] Reno spoke with clarity: “I’m personally opposed to the death penalty . . . [but] when the evidence and the law justify the death penalty, I will ask for it as I have consistently. I will advocate for it as the law of the land in particular situations if we can secure such penalties.”[5]

First Female U.S. Attorney General

Questioners at the press conference for her nomination as U.S. Attorney General pointedly suggested that the job was “set aside for a woman.”[6] Clinton repeatedly emphasized that was not the case; yet, when a questioner asked Reno if she was a feminist, she brought the point home: “[I] consider myself a person.”[7]

Branch Davidian Raid in Waco, Texas

Reno was inaugurated in March 1993,[8] and she inherited the events of the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian cult’s Waco, Texas, compound; four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were shot and killed while executing a search warrant for illegal weapons hoarding on the compound.[9]

As the siege wore on, Reno noted the agents’ fatigue and the fruitlessness of negotiations with the cult to evacuate.[10] Fifty-one days passed without progress, despite tactics to make compound residents want to evacuate — including cutting off electricity and blaring sounds of rabbit slaughter throughout the night.[11] After days of deliberation and research into its safety, Reno approved an order for agents to tear gas the compound in a final effort to force the members out.[12]

What Reno had initially discounted, however, was that the Branch Davidians would respond by committing mass suicide after a fire broke out during the raid.[13] Around 80 people, including 17 children, perished in the fire.[14] Immediately on the afternoon of the failed raid, Reno took full responsibility.[15] Although highly criticized for the overall failure, the FBI lauded her for this move, with one Bureau veteran saying that “she stood up and took a bullet for us.”[16]

Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman Arrest

Reno’s refusal to arrest Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman in 1993 for his connection to a terrorist plot to detonate bombs across New York City marked the Attorney General’s deference to due process.[17] While government and federal law enforcement officials urged her to make the arrest, she asserted two positions against it: (1) There was not enough evidence of his involvement in the plot to justifiably arrest the cleric, and (2) he could have been of tactical use as a link to other terrorists.[18]

Reno was notably just as “concerned with protecting the rights of the guilty as with punishing them.”[19] Only when the sheik attempted to flee New York did Reno feel justified in making the arrest.[20]

Monica Lewinsky

From the onset of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Clintons were submerged in a controversy in which they were accused of being “potential beneficiaries” of illegal activity by a failed savings and loans association with which they were associated.[21] The investigation carried on throughout Bill Clinton’s second term. Then, the Independent Counsel for the controversy, Kenneth Starr, received the tip about the Lewinsky affair.[22]

In January 1998, Starr contacted Reno to receive authorization to expand his probe in relation to the tip.[23] Reno, in an act of personal accountability, authorized the expansion; this led to her boss, the president, being engulfed in the scandal for which he is now notorious.[24]

Final Thoughts

This all barely scratches the surface of Reno’s professional career. Another notable point is that her 1995 diagnosis of Parkinson’s meant that she spent most of her time as Attorney General battling the disease.[25] What it boils down to is this: Janet Reno was one of the very few modern political figures to have entered the game not for personal gain, but to actually do something positive for the United States.

Perhaps my time as a fourth-grader was best spent competing with my friends in inane contests in the cafeteria. Most likely, as a child, even if I did know anything about Reno beyond SNL skits, I would have glossed over it as nonessential to my existence. Today, though, as a lady in law school, time researching her professional career was well-spent. Reno respected the law while she unwaveringly maintained her personal beliefs. For that reason, among others, the death of this historic woman is certainly one to be remembered.



[1] Janet Reno, First Woman to Serve as U.S. Attorney General, Dies at 78, N.Y. Times,

[2] 6 Things Janet Reno Will Be Remembered For, Time,

[3] Janet Reno, First Woman to Serve as U.S. Attorney General, Dies at 78, supra.

[4] President Bill Clinton, Remarks by the President in His Announcement of His Selection of Janet Reno as the Attorney General Nominee (Feb. 11, 1993), available at

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] 6 Things Janet Reno Will Be Remembered For, supra.

[9] The Standoff in Waco, Texas Observer,

[10] Stephen Labaton, Reno Sees Error In Move On Cult, N.Y. Times, Apr. 20, 1993, at A1.

[11] Id. at A21.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at A1.

[14] Sam Howe Verhovek, Scores Die As Cult Compound Is Set Afire After F.B.I. Sends In Tanks With Tear Gas, N.Y. Times, Apr. 20, 1993, at A1.

[15] Excerpts From News Session With Attorney General Reno, N.Y. Times, Apr. 20, 1993, at A21.

[16] Truth, Justice and the Reno Way, Time,,33009,978865-1,00.html.

[17] Cleric Said to Know of Plot; Arrest Rejected, LA Times,

[18] Id.

[19] Truth, Justice and the Reno Way, supra.

[20] Id.

[21] Bill Clinton says Hillary was ‘completely exonerated’ in Whitewater, Politifact,

[22] A Chronology: Key Moments In The Clinton-Lewinsky Saga, CNN,

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Janet Reno, First Woman to Serve as U.S. Attorney General, Dies at 78, supra.

Comments are closed.