A week after she ordered federal agents to seize Elián González from his relatives in Miami, Republican critics were snarling, the Miami Cuban community was venting its rage in street demonstrations, legal scholars were debating the proprieties of the federal magistrate’s warrant that was employed in the snatch–and Janet Reno’s office at the Justice Department was filled to overflowing with flowers from ordinary Americans. In a particularly creative act of spite, someone flew over Miami’s Little Havana in a small plane that trailed a banner saying, America loves Janet Reno.
When GOP senators confronted her for an explanation of the Miami raid, they were careful to do it not only in closed session but in a secure, specially insulated room on the fourth floor of the Capitol that’s normally used for top-secret intelligence briefings. The senators were not trying to protect sensitive national security information but to avoid an increasingly common embarrassment: When members of Congress challenge the soft-spoken, gawky Reno, she routinely makes them look like a bunch of cranky 8-year-olds. Indignant demands for public hearings on the Elián operation dissolved as politicians found that the public opposed them by a margin that soon rose to 2 to 1.
For Reno, the Elián case was a decisive political victory. She has been involved in a relentless series of explosive controversies–from the 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, to the prosecution of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee–all of which opened her to accusations of incompetence, cover-ups and partisanship. But in the Elián case, Reno managed to marginalize the right. Conservative Republicans instinctively and almost unanimously sided with the Miami Cubans; the public supported Reno. After seven years in which she has suffered unusually personal and nasty criticism, the public has decided that it trusts her more than it trusts her critics, with their rants about jackbooted federal thugs, their intricate conspiracy theories and their endless Congressional and journalistic investigations into charges that somehow evaporate upon scrutiny.
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If she were politically or personally closer to the President–as attorneys general have historically tended to be–some of the conservative or editorial-page criticism might have stuck. But her independence, though it has rankled the Clinton Administration, has been the best possible defense against the most serious of the conservative charges: that she has corrupted justice to protect her political patrons. In fact, she has bent over backward in naming independent counsels to investigate her colleagues; the charges in virtually every case have come to nought.
The list of conflicts in which Reno has been forced to play a central role is an unrelenting catalogue of thankless tasks: the traditional replacement of all US Attorneys when she first took office; the disaster at Waco, in which eighty-one people, including twenty-five children, were killed; the revenge taken for Waco by the men who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later; the series of independent counsels she sought for investigations of fellow members of the Cabinet, including President Clinton himself; her agreement to expand independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s mandate to include the Monica Lewinsky case; her refusal to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore’s fundraising from the White House; her refusal to authorize a wiretap on Wen Ho Lee amid the explosive charge that he was suspected of passing nuclear weapons secrets to China; the failure to move quickly against former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch, who violated CIA security rules; the Microsoft antitrust suit; and the Elián case, in which her own Vice President undercut her by recommending that Elián be given permanent residency in this country. She is currently contemplating an almost-hopeless prosecution of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet for masterminding the 1976 murder in Washington of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Moffitt.