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Janet Reno: Reflecting on America’s first female attorney general and her example of public service

U.S. Attorney General-designate Janet Reno is sworn in, 1993. AP Photo/Barry Thumma

Some of today’s politicians seem to equate leadership with shouting, arrogance, cruelty and deception. Janet Reno, the first female U.S. attorney general and the second longest serving attorney general in history, was so honest she scared some politicians.

They called her blunt. They said sometimes she was not a team player. But she was playing the game by the rules her family gave her: “Tell the truth and don’t cheat.”

That’s the credo Janet Reno grew up with in her home on the edge of Florida’s Everglades. And that’s probably why President Obama said that Washington had never seen anyone like her.

I want my daughters, and every aspiring political leader, to know her story. Janet Reno was a different kind of public servant. She was tough, smart and humble.

Sturdy foundation

Reno and I were in public service at overlapping times, and I got to know her over the course of more than 30 years. She was in the state attorney’s office; I was in the legislature. When I was writing a book about privacy a few years, ago she reviewed it and wrote a helpful blurb for the book.

At Coral Gables High she was voted the smartest kid in her class. She was a tall young woman with a brilliant mind and an independent spirit. That independent spirit was learned from her parents, who were reporters for two different newspapers.

She grew up in the house her mother built. It was close enough to the Everglades that she and her three siblings learned how to coax alligators to sleep by rubbing their bellies – but only the small ones. Save for a single windswept shingle, the Reno home was strong enough to withstand Hurricane Andrew. Likewise, Janet’s moral foundation was strong enough to withstand the winds of controversy and competition in Washington D.C.

When she first came to Washington in 1992, Bill Clinton’s two previous picks for attorney general had withdrawn their nominations over controversies with their nannies and housekeepers. That was no problem for Janet – the humble Reno home had never had a maid or nanny.

Over her eight years as attorney general there were great victories for law enforcement, such as the arrest and conviction of the Oklahoma City bomber in 1995 and the Unabomber in 1996. There was also the Waco standoff – the federal government’s encounter with the Branch Davidians that resulted in close to 80 deaths after a 51-day stalemate. Some called it a disaster. Janet took responsibility for her controversial judgment call. The buck stopped with her.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno defending her role in the Waco siege.

Reno then faced the dilemma of the young boy who had been ordered returned to his father in Cuba. After difficult negotiations, she authorized federal agents to seize young Elian Gonzalez so he could be returned to his father. The picture of an armed federal agent and the boy was front page news. She never wavered that the right thing was to return the child to his parent.

She embraced public service throughout her career, but in my opinion she was an entirely different kind of public person than the image of a politician today. Political consultants never persuaded her to give long, misleading answers to hard questions. She left Washington in 2002 with her integrity intact and a reputation as a uniquely honest and candid individual.

Upon her return to Florida, she was persuaded to run for governor. She set off in her Ford pickup truck to persuade Florida to elect the first female governor. In 2002 she pulled that truck into my driveway for a campaign event my wife and I hosted in her honor at our home. I have held and been to many political events, but this one was different. She was genuine and kind to everyone.

There was no shading of answers to meet the expectation of pollsters or financial supporters. There were no spin doctors. She did not have droves of aides and advance people. She had an honest and well-fought campaign, but ultimately lost that Democratic primary election,and Jeb Bush was reelected.

After the election, Janet moved back to the same home where she grew up. She was back with her family kayaking with her sister Maggie. But she never lost her commitment to public service and justice. She became active with the Innocence Project, using her perspective as a prosecutor to search for the truth about wrongful convictions.

A model public servant

In 2003 and 2005 she came to the University of Florida to speak with our students. On one of those trips she sat around a table with a group young law students to lead an honest discussion about integrity in the legal profession. She talked about the importance of knowing the facts and the truth as a lawyer seeking justice. In public service she could be no different than who she always was.

Honesty was not a challenge, it was part of her DNA.

The 2016 election has been traumatic and disturbing. At this moment, it is important to remember public servants include people like Janet Reno.

She was a humble and determined pioneer who never stopped honoring the truth. She lived the same values her entire life. At this time in America, we need to demand those high standards from our leaders and pass them on to our children. “Tell the truth and don’t cheat.”

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