Janet Reno, former US attorney general, dead at 78

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Janet Reno has died after a brave battle against Parkinson's disease. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and the epicenter of several political storms during the Clinton administration, has died. She was 78.

Reno died early Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D'Alemberte said. D'Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.

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Reno, a former Miami prosecutor who famously told reporters "I don't do spin," served nearly eight years as attorney general under President Bill Clinton, the longest stint in a century.

One of the administration's most recognizable and polarizing figures, Reno faced criticism early in her tenure for the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished.

She was known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner. Reno frequently told the public "the buck stops with me," borrowing the mantra from President Harry S. Truman.

After Waco, Reno figured into some of the controversies and scandals that marked the Clinton administration, including Whitewater, Filegate, bungling at the FBI laboratory, Monica Lewinsky, alleged Chinese nuclear spying and questionable campaign financing in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election.

In the spring of 2000, Reno enraged her hometown's Cuban-American community when she authorized the armed seizure of 5-year-old Elian. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida and made an unsuccessful run for Florida governor in 2002 but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems.

The campaign ended a public career that started amid humble beginnings. Born July 21, 1938, Janet Wood Reno was the daughter of two newspaper reporters and the eldest of four siblings. She grew up on the edge of the Everglades in a cypress and brick homestead built by her mother and returned there after leaving Washington. Her late brother Robert Reno was a longtime columnist for Newsday on Long Island.

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, Reno became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School's Class of 1963. Reno, who stood over 6 feet tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer "because I didn't want people to tell me what to do."

In 1993, Clinton tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices - also women - were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies. Reno was 54.

"It's an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud," Reno said after she won confirmation.

Clinton said the vote might be "the only vote I carry 98-0 this year."

A little more than a month of taking office, however, Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.

The standoff had started even before Reno was confirmed as attorney general. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made a surprise raid on the compound, trying to execute a search warrant. But during the raid gunfire erupted, killing four agents and six members of the religious sect.

That led to a 51-day standoff, ending April 19, 1993, when the complex caught fire and burned to the ground. The government claimed the Davidians committed suicide, shooting themselves and setting the fire. Survivors said the blaze was started by tear gas rounds fired into the compound by government tanks, and that agents shot at some who tried to flee. Reno had authorized the use of the tear gas to end the standoff and later called the day the worst of her life.

"It was a dangerous situation," Reno said of the incident during a 2005 lecture at Duke University. "The tragedy is that we will never know what was the right thing to do."

Things got no easier after Waco. In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's after noticing a trembling in her left hand. She said from the beginning that the diagnosis, which she announced during a weekly news conference, would not impair her job performance. And critics - both Republicans and Democrats - did not give her a pass because of it.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch today released the following statement:

"With the passing of Janet Reno, the Department of Justice has lost one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected leaders in its proud history. From her years in state law enforcement to her long and eventful tenure as Attorney General, Janet Reno always strove, as she put it, to do her 'level best.' She led the department in a time of turmoil and change, confronting issues ranging from international and domestic terrorism to fair competition in the emerging technology sector. In meeting these challenges, she was guided by one simple test: to do what the law and the facts required. She accepted the results of that test regardless of which way the political winds were blowing. She never shied from criticism or shirked responsibility, earning her the affection of her subordinates, the respect of her critics, and the esteem of the American people. And of course, as the first woman to serve as attorney general, she was an inspiration and a trailblazer for so many women working in law enforcement and government -- including me. The United States is a stronger, safer and more just place because of Janet Reno's leadership, and she will be dearly missed."
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