MIAMI — Shy and admittedly awkward, Janet Reno became a blunt prosecutor and the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general.

She was also at the epicenter of a relentless series of political storms during the Clinton administration, from the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, to the seizure of 5-year-old Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez.

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

Known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner, Reno frequently said, “the buck stops with me,” borrowing the mantra from President Harry S. Truman.


Reno, 78, died early Monday of complications from 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, who sang songs and recited poetry at her bedside.

Her sister, Maggy Reno Hurchalla, said former President Clinton called over the weekend to “tell Janet I love her” and that many others from her career visited or called, including former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham.

“When I tucked her in at night, I said ‘I love you,”‘ Hurchalla said. “She looked like she was asleep and raised one eyebrow and said, ‘I love you too very much.’ She was surrounded this weekend by people who love her.”

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 young Elian. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.


During her tenure, the Justice Department prosecuted the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, captured “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski that same year and investigated the 1993 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center.

The department also filed a major antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corp., and Reno was a strong advocate for protecting abortion clinics from violence.

President Obama called her “an American original” in a White House statement.

“When Janet Reno arrived in Washington in 1993, the city had never seen anyone like her before – and hasn’t since,” Obama said. “Her legacy lives on in a generation of lawyers she inspired, the ordinary lives she touched, and a nation that is more just.”


Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised Reno’s integrity and status as a female trailblazer, calling Reno “one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected leaders” in Justice Department history.

Reno, Lynch added, approached challenges “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.”

Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, who worked for Reno in Washington from 1995-2000, recalled her compassion for the nation’s dispossessed, her warm relationship with employees and her practical approach to problems.

“Even if you agreed or disagreed with her, you knew she was coming from a place of integrity,” Ferrer said. “”Through her work, through her decisions, she exhibited a lot of strength and a lot of courage. And that is also inspiring.”

After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida to run for 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.”