MIAMI -- Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general whose tenure spanned some of the most tumultuous periods in American life, died. She was 78.
Her goddaughter, Gabrielle D'Alemberte, told the Associated Press that she died early Monday from complications related to Parkinson's disease.
Reno arrived in Washington in 1993 as a relatively unknown prosecutor from Miami — newly-elected President Bill Clinton’s third choice to lead the sprawling Justice Department — whose apolitical ways and hulking physical stature both endeared her to supporters and made her a perennial target of administration critics.
The second-longest serving attorney general in history, Reno’s Justice Department was thrust into a nearly unending series of tests, from the government’s deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, and the first World Trade Center attack investigation to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the international custody battle for a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez.
Her improbable political survival during a grueling eight years in office, while also battling Parkinson’s disease, may be the most striking aspect of her tenure.
Reno, the daughter of Miami newspaper reporters, was plucked from the trenches of Florida’s criminal justice system only after Clinton’s first two candidates for the job as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer — corporate lawyer Zoe Baird and federal judge Kimba Wood — were upended by questions over payments to nannies.
She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in a 98-0 vote, yet questions about her own readiness for the task came just 38 days in office when the government’s final assault on the Branch Davidian sect, which the new attorney general helped oversee, left 80 people dead in a smoldering ruin.
The botched operation, which Reno would later describe as her worst moment in office, brought calls for her resignation, which she offered, though was rejected by Clinton.
The stunning bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, then-the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, would follow two years later, plunging the nation into an examination of a largely unseen threat from an anti-government movement roiling within the country.
Born in 1938 in Miami, Reno gained a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1960 before attending Harvard Law School.
Reno, who stood at more than 6 feet tall, said she wanted to become a lawyer “because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do.”
She served as prosecutor for Dade County, Fla., from 1978 to 1993.
After winning confirmation as attorney general, she called the moment an "extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud.''
She was famed for telling reporters “I don’t do spin" and often told the public “the buck stops with me.”
Reno's tenure also was marked by political furor, similar to the controversy that now shadows the Justice Department's management of the Hillary Clinton email inquiry.
Sixteen years ago, Reno rejected a recommendation to appoint a special counsel to investigate the vice president’s campaign fundraising activities, a decision that infuriated Republicans and shadowed the general election campaign to its historically disputed end.
The events of her tenure seemed unrelenting.
In 2000, Reno enraged Miami’s Cuban-American community by authorizing the armed seizure of 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the home of his relatives so he could be returned to Cuba with his father.
The tense international custody battle occupied Reno and the Justice Department for weeks before she finally approved the pre-dawn raid.
While her actions during myriad seminal events drew the most attention, her spare personal style was just as striking.
Appearances never mattered. She preferred simple suits and just a dab of lipstick. Her preparation for a photo session with USA TODAY amounted to a single swipe through her short, low-maintenance hairdo with a borrowed brush. "OK, I'm ready."
She walked to work and often did so before dawn, trailed by FBI bodyguards. She accepted the fact that advancing Parkinson's disease had caused her to lose control of her hands at times, and she didn't care if that made anyone uncomfortable.
Her quiet, no-nonsense manner ultimately was celebrated with a regular parody on Saturday Night Live, called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.’’ The skit featured Will Ferrell, dressed in a Reno standard royal blue dress and pearls. She embraced the parody and joined the cast to share in the fun.
Reno, who unsuccessfully ran for Florida governor in 2002, never enjoyed dealing with reporters, though when she did if often featured references to her deceased mother, Jane Reno, known as a coarse character who built the family home at the edge of the Florida Everglades.
Asked once how her mother would assess her performance as attorney general, Reno said:
"After scoffing, she would have said she was very, very proud of me."
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