Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Let History Make the Judgment (1993)

Mar 12, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


    Historically, females could not be attorneys; they could not be generals. Hence, when Janet Reno became the first attorney general, the splintering of the glass ceiling sent seismic shock waves throughout the country.

    Born in Coconut Grove in 1938, Janet’s childhood provided her with the moral compass that stood her in good stead when she assumed the mantle of leadership that placed her in the eye of many a storm. Her father was born in Denmark as Henry Olaf Rasmussen; his parents changed their name from Rasmussen to Reno (chosen at random from a map of Nevada to make it sound American). Her father, a Pulitzer-Prize reporter for the Miami Herald, covered crime for a city infiltrated by mobs. Her mother, Jane, also a reporter, built the family residence with her own hands at the edge of the Everglades, situated where paved roads ended, and air-conditioning was considered a luxury for sissies. The house had two bedrooms for a family of six, and there was no door on the bathroom until a family friend arrived with tools and lumber. The surrounding property of twenty-one acres was the domain of alligators, cows, beagles, macaws, raccoons, goats, geese, ponies, pigs, and skunks-not descented. Jane raised peacocks, all named Horace. On one occasion, the police raided their house, having been summoned about a possible rape because the opera-loving Henry had been listening to La Traviata at full blast, driving the peacocks into a frenzy that neighbors misconstrued as an attack. In her early years, Janet had strong women as role models. Her aunt Daisy served as a nurse during World War II in North Africa and marched on Italy with General George Patton. Another aunt, Winnie, was a member of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. After junior high, Janet travelled to Europe to stay with her uncle, a military judge, as he presided over a spy trial. 

      Henry died when his children were young, and Jane ruled as a disciplinarian who resorted to a bridle strap. The fact that Jane had once wrestled an alligator who had wandered into her kitchen served as a warning to toe the line. On a maternal note, she taught them to appreciate Beethoven, Coleridge, and Kipling, as well as how to use a rifle, scuba-dive, and catch alligators (some who she gifted to the London Zoo). She advised daughters Maggie and Janet that they should not marry unless a man made their hearts go “potato, potato, potato.”

      A  debating champion at Coral Gables High School,  Janet studied chemistry at Cornell with the aspiration of becoming a doctor. Instead, she decided on a legal career “because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do” and was one of sixteen women in a class of 500 at Harvard. She hoped to practice in South Florida, but prominent Steel, Hector & Davis turned her down on the basis of her sex, and she ended up in a smaller firm. Her foray into politics arrived when Richard Gerstein, the state attorney for Dade County, offered her a position. Forever forthright, she informed Gerstein that her father thought he was a crook; he replied that her candor was why he had offered her the job. Eschewing an official car, Reno drove her battered Chevy Celebrity.

      As prosecutor-in-chief, there were many people to prosecute as Miami was in its “Miami Vice” days. She orchestrated a number of high-profile cases including where five white policemen had been charged with beating to death Arthur McDuffie, an unarmed black motorcyclist. When an all-white jury voted for acquittal, rioting erupted during which eighteen people died, and damages were estimated at $100 million. Governor Bob Graham called in thousands of National Guard troops to keep the peace. Mobs shouted “Re-no!” as they set fires. As the lead prosecutor, Reno was accused of being a racist, received death threats and calls for her resignation. She refused with the words that “To resign was to give in to anarchy” and set out to rebuild her reputation in the black community. Janet travelled without a bodyguard to impoverished African-American neighborhoods where crowds vented their rage. Her calmness and candor diffused the situation. During her tenure, Reno cracked down on deadbeat dads that inspired a rap song with the lyrics, “She caught you down on 15th Street, trying to hide your tail/She fined your ass and locked you up. Now who can’t post no bail?” 

      During her bid for reelection, a contender was a born-again Christian, Jack Thomson, who called the six-foot two Janet a lesbian. In response, she put her arm around his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Jackson. I love big, strong, handsome, rational, intelligent, kind and sensitive men and I understand why you might be concerned.” Jackson attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue for assault. After Gerstein announced he was leaving office, he made Reno the interim state attorney, choosing her over fifty other candidates. She was the first woman to obtain the position and remained at her post until The White House called.

        President Bill Clinton announced his commitment to appointing a woman District Attorney. His first choice was the corporate lawyer Zoë Baird, but he was forced to rescind the nomination over her employing an undocumented immigrant as a nanny. The episode, dubbed “Nannygate,” deepened when Clinton’s second choice, Judge Kimba Wood, had committed the same offense. Ms. Reno had no children and no nanny issues. She also had no husband; apparently, no man had made her heart go “potato, potato, potato.” Rumors circulated as to Janet’s sexual orientation and led to her rebuttal, “I’m just an awkward old maid with a very great attraction to men.” At her Rose Garden induction ceremony, Janet said, “It’s an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud.” Her mother had died a few weeks before the historic moment, and in her acceptance speech, she paid tribute to the woman who had been her life’s guiding light. While Janet had wrestled alligators with the Miccosukee Indians and punched a hog between the eyes when it turned aggressive with her niece Karin, in D. C. Reno had to circumvent sharks. She proved her detractors wrong when they scoffed at the gal from the swamp.

         Despite her prestigious post, Janet insisted she not be addressed by the traditional title “General,” and said, “Call me ‘Hey, you!’ or call me Janet.” Reno was never part of the Clintons’ inner circle, and her preference for kayaking on the Potomac River over hobnobbing on the capital’s cocktail circuit made her a fish out of the capital’s water. In her role, she proved a fierce advocate of guaranteeing federal protection to women exercising their Roe v. Wade rights and safeguarding abortion clinics that were under threat. Janet provided fodder for Saturday Night Live where Will Ferrell showcased skits of “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.” 

       Janet was no drama queen, but she was in the eye of the storm in a number of dramas. Within weeks of her appointment, Reno faced off against the self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, who belonged to an off-shoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Koresh had already killed four federal officers and had withstood a stand-off with the FBI that lasted several weeks when Reno authorized a raid in what she called the worst day of her life. She gave the go-ahead for agents to attack armed with tear-gas, acting under reports that cult members were endangering children. The assault went horribly awry. The compound went up in flames, leaving more than eighty dead, including twenty-five children. The debacle aired live on national television. Later that day, a haggard Reno stated that she took full responsibility and offered to resign. In the glare of the media spotlight, she stated, “The tragedy is we will never know what was the right thing to do.” The public deluged her with letters of support, and she became the shining light of the Clinton cabinet. Time declared, “Reno is pure oxygen in a city with thin air and she’s gone to its head.” Celebrities such as Barbra Streisand flocked to meet the reluctant hero.

       The Attorney General’s plate was never empty. Reno authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the bombing in Oklahoma City and secured a guilty plea from “The Unabomber,” Theodore Kaczynski. She was behind the anti-monopoly prosecution of Microsoft and a racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Ms. Reno oversaw the arrest of Sheik Oman Abdel Rahman for his role in the World Trade Center bombing. The A.G. handled the espionage case against former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, held in solitary confinement for nine months after being charged with mishandling nuclear secrets. Near the end of her tenure, Ms. Reno arranged for the armed seizure by federal agents of Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old Cuban refugee caught in an international custody battle between his father and his Miami relatives.  Photographs of the terrified child taken with a gun-wielding border agent became media fodder. For each case, she stood behind her actions and took as her mantra Harry S. Truman’s quotation, “The buck stops here.”

      Despite Janet’s appointment by the President, her decision to allow an independent inquiry into a failed Clinton land deal in Arkansas, the so-called Whitewater investigation, expanded to include the President’s sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment. Ms. Reno said first lady Hillary Clinton never forgave her for airing her husband’s dirty linen-and the blue dress-in public. Nor did she endear herself to journalists who dreaded her customary terse rebuke, “You haven’t done your homework, have you?” However, her legacy was sterling as she operated on Jane’s precept of, “telling the truth and being kind.” When Reno stepped down from her post, only one person’s in the nation’s history had occupied the position longer, and that was back in the days of wooden whaling ships. Washington would have been glad to see her go before she did, but she was as immoveable as the limestone house her mother had built a century ago. Reno showed a more relaxed side when she appeared on Saturday Night Live alongside Ferrell the night she departed the Justice Department.

     After her tenure as district attorney where she had withstood a series of political cannonballs, suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, the formidable Floridian returned to her Everglade home. Unwilling to retire, in 2002, she ran for governor to oust Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush, and campaigned by driving throughout the state in her red pickup truck. However, her popularity was undermined by the Cuban community who had undying enmity over her handling of Elian Gonzalez.

    After Reno’s 2016 passing, Loretta Lynch, the second woman to serve as US attorney general, praised her predecessor, “She was guided by one simple test, to do what the law and the facts required...regardless of which way the political winds were blowing.” Asked to describe her legacy, Reno quoted George Washington, “If I were to write all that down, I might be reduced to tears. I would prefer to drift on down the stream of life and let history make the judgment.”