As she nears the end of her tenure as one of the nation’s longest-serving attorneys general, Janet Reno is beginning to contemplate her legacy. She addressed questions on the topic following her speech on DNA technology last week at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).
“My lowest point [in office] was clearly the Waco case,” she said, referring to the violent end of the armed standoff at the Texas Branch Davidian compound in 1993 when more than 80 people were killed. “What you do in those situations is try to prepare yourself as much as possible, ask as many questions as you can, try to make sure that you resolve everything that you possibly could, and then live with your decision because you know you tried your best.”
Reno came under a barrage of criticism for the FBI’s handling of the case. “I will never know what the right decision was,” she said.
The federal government’s handling of the Elian Gonzales case earlier this year also drew criticism from several factions across the country, including the Cuban-American community in Miami, Reno’s hometown. She told the audience she remains convinced she made the right decision to send the boy back to his father in Cuba, considering all of the elements involved in that decision.
“There was freedom versus totalitarian government. There was a father’s love versus freedom. There was the law. There was passion from both sides,” she said. “Somebody once asked me what was my bottom line, and I said, ‘My bottom line is that little boy belongs with his daddy.'”
When asked her opinion on the death penalty, Reno said she is opposed to capital punishment because she does not believe all indigent defendants can be guaranteed competent counsel.
On the issue of crime in general, Reno was emphatic on one point. “Unless we end violence in the home, we will never end it in the streets and communities of America.”
Reno also alluded to a greater government role in assuring the health and safety of the next generation of Americans. “What good are all the prisons going to be 18 years from now if this child doesn’t have a conscience? What good are all the educational opportunities going to be if this child doesn’t have the foundation for learning?” she asked. “We’ve got to make sure every child has proper medical care. We’ve got to make sure there are enough programs for kids after school and in the evenings.
“We’ve got to make sure something is corrected in a society that pays football players in the six-digit figures and pays its teachers what we pay them.”
And concerning the current election dispute in Florida, Reno tiptoed around the topic, calling it a “matter of state law,” while also identifying the greater lesson that can come out of the imbroglio.
“I think it is time for all of us to learn to take stock of just what happened, and most of all, to never ever take democracy for granted,” she said. “And always, always go vote.”