Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was an extraordinary public servant. I had the privilege of working daily with her for three years as her special assistant and counsel.
Upon learning of her death Monday, certain images came to mind: In her Justice Department conference room, she hung a print of the Norman Rockwell painting of an African American girl being escorted to an all-white school by federal marshals. She cared deeply about civil rights.
She was incredibly accessible to the public. When people approached her – and she was among the most recognizable Bill Clinton administration officials in the 1990s – she would shoo away her security detail and take the time to listen and then make sure that her staff would get back to the person with an answer if she did not have one.
Her daily meetings with senior staff included “the get-back list,” which included all the follow-up items staff owed her as well as “get backs” owed to members of the public.
She held weekly press availabilities, which were unheard of in Washington, D.C. But it underscored her belief in transparency. When diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she immediately announced it publicly, saying she would resign if it affected her service. It did not.
She could laugh at herself and had a great sense of humor, and found very amusing Will Ferrell’s “Saturday Night Live” skits about “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”
She had FBI planes at her disposal, but instead flew commercial coach, which meant folding her 6-foot-2-inch frame into very uncomfortable seats. She refused offers to sit in exclusive airline lounges or first class, saying she should not receive a benefit from her position.
She routinely called career attorneys to make sure she was getting all the facts. In prior administrations, line attorneys felt fortunate to have seen the AG at a distance. Imagine their surprise when they picked up the phone to hear: “This is Janet Reno. I would like your thoughts” on whatever topic had interested her.
She championed early childhood education before it was commonly understood that providing young children with education was critical to their later success, and loved meeting kids. She would stoop to their eye level and talk to them about their interests and hopes.
Her guiding principle was to “do the right thing,” without regard to consequences. I saw it firsthand when she applied the facts to the law and determined the law required little Elian Gonzalez, whose mother perished making a perilous journey with him by raft to Florida to escape Cuba, must be returned to his father in Cuba.
She knew making that decision would anger the Cuban American community and erode her chance of being Florida governor. She expressed no regrets, even after losing her run for governor in 2002.
To Janet Reno, justice was not just about arrests and prosecutions, although no one was tougher when it came to that. She talked about the importance of building healthy communities to help prevent crime, and was a pioneer in understanding the importance of DNA evidence in securing convictions and exonerating innocent people.
As I make my way as a public official, I often ask myself: “What would Janet Reno do?” It’s a question many of us who chose public service ought to ask more often.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones is on the board of the Janet Reno Endowment at Georgetown University, cjjr.georgetown.edu/janet-reno-endowment. Reach Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.