Janet Reno, the first female attorney general of the United States, died Nov 7 at age 78. She will be remembered as a giant in Washington (and not just because she was 6 feet 1 inches tall), so I think it’s only fitting to use today’s blog to remember her.
Janet Reno served as the 78th attorney general of the United States, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. She served as Clinton’s only attorney general, making her the longest-serving AG since 1829. A native of Miami, she attended public school in Miami-Dade County before enrolling in and graduating from Cornell University and Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 16 female members of the class of 1963. After working for a law firm and later the Florida legislature, she was appointed the state’s attorney for Dade County in 1978, a position she held until 1993, when she was tapped to lead the Department Justice.
Her term as AG will be remembered not only for her actions related to the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the weeks-long standoff which lead to the seizure of 5-year-old Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez, but for her steadfast protection of civil rights. She oversaw the Justice Department’s prosecution of both the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City federal building bombings. She championed the reproductive rights of women and took on the tobacco industry in a landmark lawsuit. Current Attorney General Loretta Lynch called Reno “one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected leaders” in Justice Department history.
The New York Times described her as “awkward in manner and blunt in her probity.” She frequently told the public “the buck stops with me.” Like most political figures in the country, she became fodder for the late night comedians and impersonators. How could we ever forget Will Ferrell’s “Janet Reno Dance Party” skits on “Saturday Night Live.” As life imitates art, Reno’s own dance skills provided the inspiration for the SNL skits.
On her last day on the job, in fact, she joined Ferrell on stage. The Washington Post perfectly described the scene:
And on her last day as attorney general, she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” joining Ferrell playing her alter-ego dance party host to thunderous applause.
“Hi, Janet,” Ferrell said.
“Your mouth, just zip it,” Reno said, mimicking the caricature that Ferrell had developed. “I like your dress, Janet.”
“Thanks, Janet, I like yours, too,” Ferrell said. “Oh Janet, I can’t believe I have to say goodbye. What do you do when you get sad?”
“I just dance,” Reno said. “Now, hit it!”
“Twist and Shout” begins playing, and they happily dance.
Janet Reno will be remembered as a titan of the law, a dedicated public servant, and a brilliant attorney. The weekend before she died, Bill Clinton called Reno’s sister and asked her to “tell Janet I love her.”