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Reno's credentials place her far above Baird, Wood


WASHINGTON -- The applause began for Janet Reno even before she entered the Senate hearing room.

In the hallway, the people who had waited in line for more than an hour just for the chance to see her, began to clap as soon as she came into view.

Reno loped past them, smiling a little and then ducking her head shyly when some people inside the room rose and gave her a standing ovation.

Having selected Zoe Baird, having virtually selected Kimba Wood, Bill Clinton has now nominated Janet Reno to be our attorney general.

And as her first day of hearings ended yesterday, it was clear that she needed but one thing to get the approval of the U.S. Senate:

A pulse.

Not that she lacks other qualifications. On the contrary, she is unusually well-qualified for the job.

But having had two previous disasters, Bill Clinton now wanted a sure thing in selecting the nation's top prosecutor.

And so he did something he had not done before: He went out and found an actual prosecutor.

And not just any prosecutor, but a woman who has been prosecuting cases for 15 years in one of the nation's toughest crime areas: Dade County, Fla.

Reno's opening statement to the Judiciary Committee was unusually powerful and most of it had nothing to do with the law.

She talked about her father, a Danish immigrant who came to this country at age 12, who could speak no English and was "teased about his funny accent." He became a police reporter and was "always fair and never mean," Reno said, because he remembered what it was like to be laughed at.

She talked about her mother who built the family house, who "dug the foundation with her own hands with a pick and shovel, she put in the wiring, she put in the plumbing", and then, years later, as Hurricane Andrew smashed into Florida, she sat "old and frail and dying" in her rocking chair confident the house would stand.

The house stood. Lost one shingle and some screens. And Janet Reno lives there today.

Reno, whose telephone number is listed in the book, also talked about getting a call one night from a woman "who had not received her child support for the month, who wondered how the rent was going to be paid the next day and how she would care for the children crying in the background."

At one point, Reno's voice grew thick with emotion, and you could see people brush back tears.

Being warm and fuzzy is not a good reason to make a person attorney general, however. But when Reno began to take questions from the committee, she demonstrated exactly what Zoe Baird had lacked: extensive, first-hand knowledge of the criminal law.

And by the time Reno finished with the first day's testimony, people were left with just one question: Why hadn't Clinton picked her instead of Baird in the first place?

It is a good question.

Baird was a manager. She bragged to the senators that her specialty was gathering people with differing opinions together in a room and emerging with one solution. She didn't have to be an expert; she knew how to handle experts.

She was, in other words, very much like Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Kimba Wood was a federal judge, but before being appointed to that job at age 44, she had no experience with criminal cases and had never conducted a trial before a jury.

She had some nifty opinions, however, and, according to the New York Times, she "impressed Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in separate interviews. . . ."

Neither Baird nor Wood worked out. Which is fortunate.

Because Reno, who brings actual prosecutorial experience to the job, also brings something else: She has lived exactly the life that Bill Clinton's image-makers have projected for him: down home, close to the people, someone who cares.

"I want to remember the countless citizens who have touched my life, who believe so deeply in and yearn so for justice," Reno said yesterday. "If you confirm me, I would consider it such an honor and privilege to serve the people of this nation as their lawyer."

Janet Reno will be confirmed and quickly. And she seems already to have proved one thing:

You give Bill Clinton three tries and he'll get it right.

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