Reno endures strife as attorney general with steely stoicism

Tepid Clinton support, GOP jabs met by calm

April 30, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Attorney General Janet Reno trekked to Capitol Hill last week to face a gaggle of angry Republicans, it was an exercise nearly as familiar to her, if not as pleasurable, as her early-morning walks.

Eyes straight ahead, indifferent to the cameras to her side, Reno has made the march to Congress on countless occasions during her seven years as attorney general.

She had expected to be back this week to be questioned again about her decision to order the armed seizure of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the Miami home of his relatives, a raid some Republicans have called shameful, damaging to Elian and unlawful.

On Friday, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed indefinitely a hearing to examine the legality of the raid that had been scheduled for Wednesday.

The Elian case is but the latest in a long line of firestorms that Reno has grappled with during her tenure as the nation's top law enforcement officer. As the longest-serving attorney general of this century, she has endured tepid support from the Clinton administration, brutal attacks from Republicans and calls for her resignation -- always with a steely, stoic and almost robotic demeanor.

Last week captured the yin and yang of her stint as the nation's first female attorney general, a public servant widely disparaged inside the Washington Beltway, but mostly cheered outside it.

After being questioned by scornful senators in what one described as a courtroom-like atmosphere, Reno returned to her suite of offices to find flowers that had come from people all across the country as congratulations for her handling of the Elian case.

Reno has defended the raid as the only option left for reuniting the Cuban boy with his father, considering his relatives' refusal to turn him over and her concern that weapons were inside the house.

"Clearly, the agents had to be in force," she said last week. "Elian was being held by this person, and there had to be a show of force, not a use of force, to show that we were in control."

The Elian tug of war has proved particularly wrenching for Reno, so much so that aides recently had complained that she has been preoccupied by it.

A show of emotion

She acknowledged, in an uncharacteristic expression of emotion, that she had wept in the arms of her deputy, Eric Holder, after the three-minute armed raid on the home of Elian's relatives was carried out and the boy was on his way to his father.

"She did not want this to happen," Holder said, referring to the raid by federal agents.

"She cares a great deal about that community and hoped and prayed that there was a way in which this thing could have been worked out short of the enforcement action that she very reluctantly had to order."

Those close to Reno say she became so personally involved with the Elian case in part because of her concern for the community of South Florida -- her home, the place where she earned a reputation as a tough and creative state prosecutor and the place she has said she intends to return to after she leaves office.

The legacy of Waco

But another factor, say those around Reno, was the echo of Waco -- the debacle at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas. That disaster, which confronted her a month after she was sworn in, ignited both enduring disdain for her and, with her willingness to accept blame for the disaster, admiration.

After she ordered federal agents to end the standoff in April 1993, the compound erupted in flames, killing 75 people.

A Justice Department report suggested, as Reno has acknowledged, that she had not carefully read the FBI's assessment of the conditions at the compound before ordering the invasion and had not been fully aware of the situation.

This time around, "she wanted to keep more hands-on control," said Carl Stern, her former press officer. What's more, he said, "there were lessons learned at a personal level at Waco that applied here."

For instance, he said, Reno's order to federal agents in the hours before the Miami operation not to obstruct or evict photographers from the home during the raid -- contrary to the advice of other Justice Department officials -- probably had its roots in Waco.

"We all wish more press had been present and closer to the action at Waco -- it would have spared us a lot of the mischief-making," Stern said, referring to the charges made by political opponents over the past seven years that the government concealed its actions in the deadly raid.

One of the reforms that grew out of Waco was a requirement that all senior Justice Department officials, including Reno, attend an annual training session at the FBI's academy in Quantico, Va., on crisis management, precisely the kind of expertise called for in the Elian case.

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