Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, has died at the age of 78 at her home in Florida.
The Associated Press reports Reno died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
Reno was a prosecutor raised beside the sprawling Everglades swamp in Florida before she was plucked from relative obscurity by former President Bill Clinton to lead the U.S. Department of Justice in February 1993.
Though she was one of the longest-serving attorney’s general in U.S. history, her relationship with the White House oscillated between cordial and strained. During her tenure, she authorized an independent inquiry of an Arkansas land deal struck by the Clintons, which threatened to engulf the administration before it even began. That investigation later expanded to include a probe of the president’s relationship with a young intern named Monica Lewinski.
At 6’1″ and ungainly in movement, Reno was never accused of grace. She sportingly played the odd duck for late-night comedians, who made her a mainstay of network comedy programming throughout the 1990s with such gags as “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”
Her unimpeachable independence may explain the fact of her survival during a turbulent period for U.S. law enforcement. Her tenure began with the failed raid of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where an apocalyptic cult of Christian extremists led by David Koresh initiated a standoff with federal officers, which left four dead.
The Branch Davidians, numbering approximately 75, were besieged by an inter-agency force of nearly 1,000, until Reno authorized a raid of Koresh’s camp. An uncontrolled blaze left all the Davidians dead, fully a third of whom were children. (RELATED: Comey: Still No Charges For Hillary Clinton)
Controversy would bookend her time as AG. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, she ordered Immigration and Naturalization Sevice agents to seize young Elian Gonzalez, whose Cuban father demanded his return to the island nation after his mother immigrated illegally with him to Miami. An outraged Cuban-American community in south Florida would later torpedo her failed-bid for governor of Florida in 2002.
Between these two controversies, Reno oversaw a precipitous drop in crime, as well as the successful prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, whose attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City left 160 dead, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. She also brought a successful anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft.
She graduated Cornell University and Harvard Law School before returning to Florida. She joined the staff of Dade County State’s Attorney Richard Gerstein in the 1970s, answering his solicitation with characteristic forthrightness.
“My father was always convinced you were a crook, and I’ve always been a critic of yours,” she told him, according to The New York Times.
Gerstein said those were the reasons he wanted to hire her.
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