Thousand words for Reno

April 26, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno must be thinking these days that the guy who said a picture is worth a thousand words was a piker. That Associated Press photo of the federal agent brandishing a submachine gun while flushing a scared Elian Gonzalez out of that closet did more to cause her grief than all the words of reproach aimed at her for the armed assault she ordered to return the boy to his father.

Without the photo, the protests no doubt would have come anyway from the boy's Miami relatives and all those onlookers who prefer to see the sad saga as a Cold War confrontation between Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton, who hid behind Ms. Reno's skirts for most of the extended episode. But it was that picture, flashed around the world on television and on newspaper front pages, that put the worst possible public face on Ms. Reno's decision.

Yet another botch?

The fact that the raid took only three minutes and that the boy was extracted with no bodily harm to him will not save Ms. Reno from being perceived by many as having botched yet another high-profile task in a highly controversial tenure at the Justice Department. What supporters called patience and deliberation in the Elian Gonzalez case came off to many others as indecision and ham-handedness.

There must be times when Ms. Reno, and Mr. Clinton for that matter, must wish that the now little-remembered Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood had never hired those illegal aliens as nannies for their infant kids. You may recall that soon after Mr. Clinton's election in 1992 he made it known he wanted a woman as attorney general in his quest for a Cabinet "that looks like America," and struck out on his first two choices.

In the early hound's-tooth-clean pledges of the new Clinton administration, the news that Ms. Baird, a big-time corporate lawyer, had hired an illegal alien couple from Peru in violation of a 1986 immigration law and failed to pay Social Security taxes for them, forced her withdrawal. The same happened shortly afterward to Ms. Wood, although the illegal alien from Trinidad she hired was aboard before the law was enacted, became legal and all Social Security taxes were paid. No matter. She had to be thrown over the side, too.

Only then did Mr. Clinton turn to Ms. Reno, admitting that he picked her "somewhat, but not entirely" because she was a woman. Barely a month after she was sworn in, Ms. Reno gave Mr. Clinton reason to miss Ms. Baird and Ms. Wood when she gave the green light for the disastrous raid on the Branch Davidian compound atWaco that ended in what the FBI called a mass suicide, but others dubbed a Justice Department fiasco.

Ms. Reno publicly accepted the blame for an "obviously wrong" decision to attack the compound, but Mr. Clinton, clearly not wanting to start searching for a fourth woman to keep his Cabinet looking like America, kept her in place.

No room for regrets

In time, he had no reason to regret it. Although in his first term she did name four independent counsels to investigate Clinton administration figures and the Whitewater case, she rejected another to look into the Clinton-Gore fund-raising excesses of 1995-1996, and after his re-election, he reappointed her.

During Mr. Clinton's second term, Ms. Reno repeatedly turned down calls for further investigations into the fund-raising matter, and while Kenneth Starr's tenacious pursuit of Mr. Clinton continued and was expanded into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Starr complained of weak backing from Ms. Reno. Often criticized for having a political tin ear, she has been savvy enough to survive on a very hot Cabinet seat.

There was a time when the job of attorney general went to a close political associate of the president -- Herb Brownell under Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Kennedy under John Kennedy, John Mitchell under Richard Nixon, Ed Meese under Ronald Reagan. Ms. Reno clearly has not been that -- an irony for this most political president. But with only nine months remaining in the Clinton presidency, she seems likely to go the distance anyway.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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