Crime-fighter with heart, Reno sets out for reform


WASHINGTON -- She quickly emerged as the star of the Clinton Cabinet, an imposing block of earnestness with guts that impressed even the capital's most macho.

"Janet Rambo," the nation's first female attorney general was dubbed, a serious, straight-shooting crime fighter sporting beige dresses, sensible heels, a defiantly non-Cristophe hairdo and, as her most potent and appealing weapon, a head-on style.

But just as Janet Reno develops a winning image as an iron-tough law enforcer -- last week she played a key role in determining the administration's actions against Islamic terrorists in New York and also in President Clinton's decision to launch a missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters -- she is pursuing a liberal agenda of justice reform.

It is one that seems to echo, in practical terms, Hillary Rodham Clinton's talk of infusing politics with a social conscience, and one that focuses on nurturing troubled children and strengthening families as a way to reduce crime.

With its "more measured approach" to punishment, including drug rehabilitation and alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, Ms. Reno's direction marks a dramatic U-turn from recent Republican strategy of mandatory minimum sentences and aggressive prison buildup.

It is an approach that, while reflecting the increase in youth violence and the public's frustration with gangs, drugs and guns, also could dim at least part of the nation's infatuation with the 6-foot-2-inch prosecutor from crime-ridden southern Florida.

At the moment, more than two-thirds of Americans polled, evenly split between men and women, approve of Ms. Reno, a 54-year-old single woman who walks to work from her downtown apartment with her security detail in tow.

Having publicly disagreed with the president, taken the administration to task and taken blame for the fatal FBI assault on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, she's become more popular than President Clinton by 20 to 30 percentage points. The polling numbers are not lost on administration politicos, some of whom fear Mr. Clinton's third choice for the nation's top justice post is upstaging the president.

"She's the model of what the American people think politicians should be -- without artifice," says Ann Lewis, a longtime friend and former Democratic Party official. "She doesn't play coy. She doesn't take a poll before she speaks. . . . She's the real Ross Perot."

Conflicts ahead

But sustaining the honeymoon will be a hefty challenge for Ms. Reno, with a department of 95,000 people and everything from civil rights to environmental crime to immigration under her purview.

Last week, she was embroiled in issues of terrorism, presenting Mr. Clinton with the formal intelligence report on Iraqi officials' plot to assassinate George Bush last April, and making the decision not to arrest Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric whose followers have been arrested in assassination and bombing plans throughout New York City.

She is expected to advise Mr. Clinton any day now on the fate of FBI Director William S. Sessions and will have to resolve other politically sensitive personnel and ethics issues within the government.

The seeds of conflicts also may lie in the number of deputies hand-selected by the Clintons and thus feeling loyalties not to Ms. Reno but to the White House.

"The president and I had an understanding," Ms. Reno tells a group of YMCA youth governors in response to a question. "He had a number of people he wanted to nominate for positions. At the same time, he didn't want to force anyone on me."

Ironically, she says, Lani Guinier was one of those people the president had in mind even though Ms. Reno eventually fought to save Ms. Guinier's aborted nomination to head the civil rights division at Justice.

"I became convinced she was a very effective advocate, which is just what I needed. . . . " Ms. Reno says. "I wish he had gone forward. I wish we had done a better job up front of preparing people for her nomination.

"We disagreed. He made a decision that his economic package was at stake and he couldn't afford an argument in the Senate over her writings."

She's aware, she says, that such comments, along with her criticism of the White House for calling in the FBI to investigate its travel office without her OK, have prompted some to accuse her of not being "a loyal soldier."

Not 'loyal soldier'

President Clinton, she responds, "expressly didn't hire me to be a loyal soldier. He hired me to be a lawyer for the people."

But listen to the Harvard-trained lawyer at one of her six or eight speaking engagements a week (her schedule is so packed that her office said she was too busy for an interview) and, whether the audience is the FBI Academy or students, you sometimes think you're listening to a children's rights advocate or family values guru as she casts the nation's anti-crime agenda in a different light.

"I suggest to you that crime, drugs, teen pregnancy, youth gangs, youth violence, dropouts . . . are symptoms of a deeper problem in society," she told the National Young Leaders Conference recently. "I think it's the most critical problem that America has faced since World War II. That is, for too often in the last 30 years, America has forgotten and neglected its children."

She talks of everything from prenatal care to conflict resolution classes in elementary school, which she championed in Miami.

She also makes a point at her many speaking engagements of stressing the need to "put the family back as a priority," even suggesting ending the workday at 3 p.m. to coincide with the end of the school day.

Her family life, a sort of portrait of family bliss cut with the ragged edge of fabric shears, is at the root of many of her preachings. That's especially true regarding the influence of her colorful mother, a tart-tongued, chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking woman with whom she lived until Jane Reno died last December at the age of 79.

"She spanked the living daylights out of us and loved us with all her heart," Ms. Reno often says. "There's no child care in the world that will ever be a substitute for what that lady was in our heart."

Ms. Reno also learned lessons from her career in public office, among them knowing how to lose. After earning a chemistry degree from Cornell University and a law degree from Harvard in 1963, and after working in private practice, she ran for the Florida Legislature in 1972 and lost.

One of her heroes, former Florida legislator John Orr, had lost an election himself and made a comeback. He told her not to despair.

" 'Janet, just keep on doing and saying what you believe to be right. Don't pussyfoot, don't equivocate, don't talk out of both sides of your mouth, and you'll wake up the next morning feeling good about yourself,' " she recalls him telling her. "That has stood me in good stead ever since."

After working as a junior prosecutor in the juvenile division in Miami, she was tapped by the governor to head the state attorney's office there in 1978 when the chief prosecutor retired. It was a trial by fire for the prosecutor who, after failing to win convictions of police officers charged with beating to death black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie in 1980, poured her energies into making peace with a city torn apart by deadly riots.

"She learned her voice," says former state Sen. Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte. "She learned how to talk about public issues."

Just months after the McDuffie trial, she won election to another term. Then she won four after that, leading the way with such novel programs in crime-ravaged Miami as a special court for drug offenses, anger control and domestic violence programs and a wilderness rehabilitation program for violent teens.

The drug court, which mixes rehabilitation programs with punishment for first-time offenders, has reduced the rearrest rate by about half, says Timothy Murray, director of the Office of Substance Abuse Control for Dade County.

Such programs have not only been successful and cost-effective, but they also "added the intangible of showing compassion when appropriate," says Miami lawyer Jeffrey S. Weiner, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "That was a change from prosecutors who saw their office as a macho-man podium."

In Washington, Ms. Reno could encounter resistance to some of her ideas, such as eliminating minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders -- who make up almost 50 percent of the inmates in federal prisons, according to drug policy experts -- to make room in prisons for dangerous career criminals.

Conservatives worried

"So far it's been talk and no action, but if she actually starts knocking heads with conservatives, she'll use up a lot of credits fast," says one congressional staff member who works on justice issues. "The attorney general is not the same thing as the secretary of health and human services or the secretary of education."

Last month, Republican Phil Gramm of Texas said on the Senate floor that he was "increasingly alarmed" at sounds he was hearing from the new attorney general about such plans. "If we are against crime, if we want to get as tough on criminals as they are on law-abiding citizens, we ought to commit our resources to build prisons and put convicted criminals in them."

On this issue, the lawmaker may have public sentiment on his side. More than 70 percent of Americans are in favor of stricter penalties, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

But he adds that there is strong public support for Ms. Reno's focus on getting to children before they get into trouble.

If she's successful in getting a handle on crime, she could become a major political asset to the president, helping him grab back conservatives who have long felt that crime-fighting was Republican domain, Mr. Goeas says.

Likewise, she's already enhanced the image of women in government, say strategists who note that the public has viewed crime-fighting as a male domain. "We will not elect a woman president until people are comfortable seeing a woman in that role," Ms. Lewis says.

Ms. Reno is already asked by her audiences whether she has thought about running for president. She smiles, saying she never looks beyond her current responsibilities.

It's a politically savvy answer.

And as she signs autographs and receives standing ovations, she says of her current star status, "I know how fragile that is."


Gun control: "In order to possess a weapon you ought to demonstrate that you know how to safely and lawfully use it. You go and take an exam and show that you know how to do it. . . . Yes, you have the right to bear arms. You also have freedom of speech. But you don't have freedom to cry "fire" in a crowded theater. In all constitutional issues that we face, we've got to balance them."

Death penalty: "I'm personally opposed to the death penalty because I think that all human life is sacred and to take human life for taking it is inconsistent. . . . I think the only reason for the death penalty is vengeance. I used to say while my mother was still alive -- because I lived with her and I considered her my best friend -- if I walked in and found somebody still there who'd killed my mother I would tear them apart from limb to limb. And that would be a personal vengeance that would be understood. But I don't think that government can engage in personal vengeance. However, I can ask for it and regularly asked for it as a prosecutor when I felt like it was justified under the law."

Immigration (speaking at the FBI Academy): "In this decade, it will be the single, most difficult problem we all face together. . . . This is a nation of immigrants. It is a tradition that this nation should be proud of. But we've got to upgrade the law and make sure that the law is responsive, that it provides haven for those who truly deserve asylum and provides a way to return those who do not in a fair, constitutional manner."

Abortion: "I think raising children is the single hardest thing to do. It takes intelligence, love, hard work. The person who's going to be most involved in that effort is the mother of that child. To bring a child into the world, to be concerned about family values, to raise that child in a way that family values matters and means something, that parent has got to want to do it. And that's the reason I'm pro-choice."

Gays in the military: "I think if somebody wants to give their life for their country, if they care enough about their country, they ought to be able to do so."

Anti-gay rights amendments being considered in some states: "I don't think anybody should be discriminated against based on who they are."

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