Former Attorney General Janet Reno, the first woman to hold the top Justice Department job who died last month, never took the easy way out when making the tougher decision was the right thing to do, ex-President Bill Clinton said at a memorial service Sunday.
Clinton, who appointed Reno in 1993, told several hundred friends, family and colleagues that she didn’t believe in political expediency or cutting corners.
“I don’t believe Janet Reno ever cut a corner in her life. Not as a prosecutor and not as a person,” Clinton said.
The service was held at a Miami Dade College campus not far from the Reno family home, where Reno died Nov. 7 at age 78 from complications from Parkinson’s disease. She had battled the disease for 20 years, including most of her time as attorney general.
Current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says Reno was a trailblazer for women and minority lawyers, recalling a conference early in her tenure as attorney general for African-American lawyers that proved pivotal for Lynch. In those days, Lynch recalled, “main Justice” — as the department’s headquarters is widely known — was the territory of mostly older white men.
“She made us feel valued. She made us feel that we could do anything. And that was her gift,” Lynch said. “I was inspired by her. I wanted to be like her.”
Reno was involved in many major and controversial 1990s issues, including the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the controversial return to Cuba of 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez and the Clintons’ Whitewater probe. She also led the department through many major prosecutions, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, the capture of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Clinton said the 1993 standoff in Waco was one of the most difficult moments of his young presidency when, with Reno leading the way, the decision was made to storm the compound amid allegations that children there were being abused during a 51-day standoff. The buildings caught fire and burned to the ground, killing 76 people including many children.
Reno, Clinton said, never wavered in taking responsibility.
“She didn’t wait. She knew it was a disaster. She went out and said ‘I made the decision. It’s my responsibility,’” Clinton said. “That’s what she did for eight years. Up and down and up and down, she was there.”
President Barack Obama sent a letter of condolences and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida also attended, with Clinton recalling that Graham was the first person to suggest Reno for the attorney general’s position.
The audience included many current and former state and federal prosecutors who worked with Reno over the years. Reno was Miami-Dade County’s top prosecutor before she was elevated to attorney general by Clinton, and after leaving Washington she ran unsuccessfully for governor of Florida.
Many people may also remember Reno as the subject of a recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit in which comedian Will Ferrell poked fun at her admittedly awkward style with “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.” Reno appeared on the skit after leaving the Justice Department in 2001.
Family and friends said in person Reno was warm, funny and compassionate, and she died in bed at home surrounded by people who loved her, said Rabbi Judith Siegel, who was there.
“She was surrounded by a circle of friends and family. We all sang and we all prayed together,” Siegel recalled. “She was a leader in her family, in her community, and in our nation.”