Janet Reno, who as attorney general was one of the most visible and polarizing members of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, died on Monday at the age of 78 due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.
She made history as the first woman to hold the job. Clinton chose her after she developed a reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor in Miami at a time when tough-on-crime policies were in vogue.
Within weeks of her confirmation as attorney general, Reno led the Clinton administration’s confrontation of the Branch Davidians, a cult that had walled itself up in a compound in Waco, Texas. After a 51-day standoff, Reno ordered the FBI to raid the compound, resulting in the deaths of at least 74 cult members, including 25 children.
In 1999, Reno was at the center of a controversy over 6-year-old Elián González, whose mother perished trying to escape with her son from Cuba to the United States. González survived the trip and was taken in by relatives in Florida, resulting in a bitter custody dispute between González’s father (who wanted his son to return to Cuba) and American relatives who argued that González would have a better life in the free and prosperous United States. Reno ultimately sided with the father and returned González to Cuba — a decision that was controversial among conservatives.
The González case was immortalized by a Pulitzer-winning photograph of a heavily armed US border patrol officer encountering a terrified González during an April 2000 raid to take custody of the child from his American relatives.
Of course, becoming a lightning rod for conservative criticism wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in the eyes of her boss, President Bill Clinton. Reno developed a reputation as a tough and straight-talking administrator, and Clinton kept her on the job throughout his presidency. That makes her the longest-serving attorney general since 1829.
She ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 before retiring to private life.