Reno tries to get off the roller-coaster

May 04, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, after a day in the capital pressure cooker, it all comes crashing down on the strapping woman with the steely jaw, the robotic demeanor and the nation's top law enforcement job.

"Every now and then, I get frazzled late at night," Attorney General Janet Reno says, "and I just kind of sit there and just shake a little bit and say, 'I just do the best I can.' "

It's been that kind of year for the one-time star of the Clinton Cabinet.

This past winter, a year after becoming the first female Justice Department chief, the 55-year-old former prosecutor from Miami looked around to see her two top deputies departed, numerous key department slots still vacant, a crime bill evolving that reflected little of her more liberal crime-fighting agenda and an image that was beginning to look like a firing-range silhouette.

Nearly as rapidly as cherry blossoms vanish in the Washington wind, the bloom had fallen off the Reno rose. And this woman from the Florida Everglades who had been hailed as The Real Thing, someone who swam with alligators and would tame the nation's wild streets, had been deemed a disappointment. Inside the Justice Department, many saw her as a poor manager in over her head, while some administration officials complained that she had a tin ear for politics and was out of sync with the White House.

These days, Ms. Reno appears to be trying to pull herself back up the roller-coaster, trying to start anew and finally put the pieces of her department together. Recently -- 14 chaotic months and several staff shake-ups into the job -- Ms. Reno has finally begun to construct a management structure at Justice that aides say should allow her to function more competently as a chief.

As a first step, she replaced her deputy, Philip B. Heymann -- who resigned earlier this year, citing bad "chemistry" with his boss -- with Jamie Gorelick, an administration legal star with well-honed political skills. And long resistant to having a chief of staff, she recently acquired Ron Klain, another political master, from the White House to serve as a counselor.

It has taken her this long, one senior Justice official says, "to figure out that she couldn't bring Dade County here."

Replacing Hubbell

Both Ms. Gorelick and Mr. Klain have solid relationships with the White House, and are expected to take the place of Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general and close Clinton friend who resigned in March, as a pipeline between Ms. Reno and the White House.

Ms. Reno has also been trying to deflect charges -- from Democrats as well as Republicans -- that she has failed to shape the Clinton agenda, especially on the highly visible issue of crime, the public's No. 1 concern. As President Clinton and his lieutenants have rallied behind an assault-weapons ban, scheduled for a vote in the House tomorrow, Ms. Reno has been a visible member of the team, participating in gun demonstrations and victims' forums and vigorously lobbying lawmakers.

Ms. Reno still enjoys great popularity outside the Beltway. She gets hundreds of letters a week from fans telling her that she's an inspiration to women or that she looks like their Aunt Edna and they might be related.

But inside official Washington, the tide began to turn against her last fall, about the time the Justice Department issued its final report on the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas -- the incident that had sparked the nation's infatuation with Ms. Reno when she publicly accepted blame for the April 1993 disaster.

Report's stings

While the Justice report concluded that the attorney general was not at fault, it suggested that she had not carefully read the FBI's assessment of conditions at the compound before she ordered the invasion. What's more, the report found no evidence that children were being abused in the compound -- the concern that was said to have been uppermost in Ms. Reno's mind when she ordered the raid.

Ms. Reno's performance on the crime bill further dimmed her golden aura. She was accused of having been "missing in action" in November, when the Senate crafted its tough-tongued crime bill -- a bill that ignored most of her views.

Justice officials "were completely absent," a Senate aide said. "That's unprecedented."

But a Justice spokesman, Carl Stern, defending the department'srole, said Ms. Reno once canceled an entire day's schedule to press senators to reinstate such items as boot camps and drug courts. He says the now-departed Mr. Heymann delegated crime-bill work to another staff person and blames that fact for contributing to the sense that "the department lacked input."

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