Friends of the rule of law are mourning the death of Janet Reno, the first woman to hold the job of attorney general. But she was far more than just an important historical first. In the 1990s, I ran the Justice Department’s press office, which gave me a front-row seat for the culture clashes that came with being a “first woman.” And I watched the D.C. and entertainment establishments grow baffled over a person too straightforward to figure out.
Like Sandra Day O’Connor and other pioneers of the Mad Men era, Reno came of age when the ceiling for women was lower and stronger. “When I was in high school it was unusual for women to go to college,” she would sometimes tell audiences, “and when I was in college people said women didn’t go to law school.” When she graduated from Harvard Law she was offered legal secretary jobs. (So was O’Connor.) And after several decades in Miami as one of America’s best prosecutors, her reward upon arriving in 1990s Washington was a whisper campaign that any career woman who was single and childless must be a lesbian. (“I am just an awkward old maid who has a very great attraction to men,” she was forced to joke.) The Economist called her a “54-year-old, 6’2” pipe-smoking spinster.”
Reno got over being historic within minutes. “I’m the third woman Bill Clinton thought of for the job,” she told me once. (Two other female nominees had withdrawn their names after not properly paying taxes on their domestic help.) Indeed, for Reno, I think feminism was all about doing the job. She launched historic campaigns to fight domestic violence and worked behind the scenes to make sure that female border patrol guards got bulletproof vests that women could actually wear. But she routinely stripped boilerplate feminist lines from speeches I prepared for her, and when a conclave of senior Clinton administration women gathered to compare notes on getting second-tier treatment, she was silent until her turn came. “I don’t have any problems getting my calls returned,” she said.
Those of us who got to work with her learned that Reno’s freakishly strong sense of integrity and security brought new possibilities to the role of attorney general, a job that wins you a permanent place on Washington’s political dartboard. When your boss works the phrase “Do the right thing” into meeting after meeting, it ripples out and makes a difference in a department of 120,000 people.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the country to discover that its attorney general was someone different. Just hours after the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, burned, following a federal law enforcement raid, she went on Nightline and took responsibility: “This was a judgment I made. I investigated it completely. I did all the—I asked the questions, I talked to the experts when I had questions, and I think the responsibility lies with me.”
These words almost need a translator in 2016. Not passing the buck landed Reno on the cover of Time. Her plainspoken sense of responsibility won her admiring fans around the country. At the White House—where the motto under every administration is that Cabinets tell bad news and leave the good stuff to the boss—some even fretted that unexpected credit was being earned, and she was earning it. Her first director of public affairs, former NBC Supreme Court reporter Carl Stern, remembers telling a reporter at the time, “It’s like working for Lincoln.”
Of the many public figures I’ve seen, Reno managed better than any to emote this sense of authenticity. Her clothes were off the rack, her syntax was occasionally garbled, and she favored what she called “small, old words” over lofty lines, but time and again she came out of a packed room with a standing ovation, no matter the topic. People got who she was, and she became a champion for a generation of career women middle-aged and older.
Reno became known for walking to the office, taking a pass on touring the talk shows and the D.C. parties, and appointing more independent counsels than all of her predecessors combined. She preferred to travel the country seeking feedback from anyone affected by the justice system. She would come back from a trip to Montana with notes about a deputy sheriff who found a line in a federal form confusing. (It got fixed.) She would give her home phone number out during speeches, until her FBI security team made her stop.
She was also the most secure person I ever worked with. She was the daughter of two reporters, and every Thursday morning, any reporter in America could come in and ask her any question he or she wanted. She loved to laugh, and in her office she collected political cartoons that attacked her. When a congressional staffer tried to put a gas mask next to her as a TV prop during a hearing on Waco, she popped it into her lap. When Parkinson’s disease made her hands tremble, she refused a medication that would have stopped the shaking but wasn’t medically necessary.
All of this made for a once-in-a-lifetime boss. But this glass ceiling–shattering, overachieving woman, indifferent to glamorous hairstyles and chic clothes, exuding a persona that flowed from her Joe Friday integrity, also became a Rorschach test for 1990s attitudes toward gender and progress. As Susan Douglas puts it in her book The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, “Janet Reno took a look at the masquerade of femininity that women are supposed to don and just said no.”
For playing by her own rules, Reno became a pop culture plaything, and the punch line always involved how much like a man she really must be. David Letterman’s top 10 list of dangerous toys included “Rock ’em Sock ’em Janet Reno.” Jay Leno said that not appointing an independent counsel to investigate the president was “Janet Reno’s toughest decision since boxers or briefs.” And on Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell donned a plain blue dress and played her in “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” a recurring skit that, as Douglas puts it, “featured the nation’s first female attorney general as a pathetic, love starved nerd who threw herself at men and danced like a robot on Angel dust. A giant; too butch; unloved; a freak.”
Reno’s answer to cultural hazing was old-fashioned grace. She appeared on the last episode of “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” crashing through a wall and dancing with Ferrell. It simply didn’t bother her to be different, because she loved her workaholic, justice-obsessed life so much. (And dancing.) As we grieve her death, I think of riding with her in a car in 1997, explaining that there was this new skit on Saturday Night Live and that she ought to know in case someone asked her about it. She thought for a moment, then asked, “What’s Saturday Night Live?”