Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and the epicenter of several political storms during the Clinton administration, including the seizure of Elian Gonzalez, died early Monday. She was 78.
Reno died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D’Alemberte said. D’Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.
Reno, a former Miami prosecutor who famously told reporters “I don’t do spin,” served nearly eight years as attorney general under President Bill Clinton, the longest stint in a century.
One of the administration’s most recognizable and polarizing figures, Reno faced criticism early in her tenure for the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished.
She was known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner. Reno frequently told the public “the buck stops with me,” borrowing the mantra from President Harry S. Truman.
After Waco, Reno figured into some of the controversies and scandals that marked the Clinton administration, including Whitewater, Filegate, bungling at the FBI laboratory, Monica Lewinsky, alleged Chinese nuclear spying and questionable campaign financing in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election.
After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida and made an unsuccessful run for Florida governor in 2002 but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems. The campaign ended a public career that started amid humble beginnings.
Born July 21, 1938, Janet Wood Reno was the daughter of two newspaper reporters and the eldest of four siblings. She grew up on the edge of the Everglades in a cypress and brick homestead built by her mother and returned there after leaving Washington. Her late brother Robert Reno was a longtime columnist for Newsday on Long Island.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, Reno became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School’s Class of 1963. Reno, who stood over 6 feet tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer “because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do.”
In 1993, Clinton tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices — also women — were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies. Reno was 54.
“It’s an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud,” Reno said after she won confirmation.
In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after noticing a trembling in her left hand. She said from the beginning that the diagnosis, which she announced during a weekly news conference, would not impair her job performance. And critics — both Republicans and Democrats — did not give her a pass because of it.
After retiring from politics, Reno served on the boards or as an adviser to several organizations. In 2004 she joined the board of the New York-based Innocence Project, which works to free prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing.
She also spent more time with her family. Shy and admittedly awkward, Reno never married but remained extremely close to her tight-knit family.