Crime-fighter with heart, Reno sets out for reform

July 01, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

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.

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