Attorney General Janet Reno died this morning in Miami, Florida, her hometown. I knew Ms. Reno had been ill for over two decades. Having lost close family members after long illnesses myself, I know that the death of a loved one sneaks up on you, and when people you love die, it’s almost as if nobody told you they were ill. It’s a weird thing how the mind copes with loss – this was how I felt this morning.
I had the privilege of being counsel to Janet Reno, with my tenure ending at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Ms. Reno hired me to become one of the seven attorneys who helped manage contacts to the Attorney General from various departments at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Ms. Reno believed public service was one of our nation’s highest callings. She was committed to making sound moral and legal judgments in the matters that came before her. She managed over some of the most difficult of circumstances: law enforcement’s response to the siege at WACO, Texas; the return of Elian Gonzales to his father and stepmother in Cuba; policing and minority communities; and more.
I traveled with her as part of President Bill Clinton’s delegation to the inauguration of the president of the Dominican Republic. I was frankly surprised and quite amused to learn on that trip that Ms. Reno was quite the celebrity (this was before the Saturday Night Live skit where she played herself). Long before “selfies” became a household word, I saw people in the airport slowly walk up to Ms. Reno (who was sometimes being interviewed by the press), stand sideways, take a photo with her, and slowly ease away. This was comical and I never saw or heard Ms. Reno complain.
Despite her sometimes serious demeanor, Mr. Reno was a hoot in her own right. The public would often call directly the Attorney General’s office to offer advice or criticism of the Attorney General or the DOJ. These calls were assigned to the support staff. However, Ms. Reno would sometimes wander over to a ringing phone and answer “Janet Reno.” You could see the telephone receiver freeze over with the “shock” from the person calling. They never expected to speak directly with the Attorney General of the United States. Both the caller and Ms. Reno were often amused with each other during the call.
My parents’ leadership as civil rights activists cemented in me long before I was seven-years-old that I wanted to be an attorney. However, I did not voluntarily tell Ms. Reno of my parents’ civil rights activism, or that a book, Our Portion of Hell (Hamburger 1973), had been written about my parents’ activism and the struggle for civil rights in Fayette County, Tennessee. I did share this book with a fellow colleague and he, unbeknownst to me, gave the book to Ms. Reno to read.
When I walked into her office one morning, Ms. Reno stood up and announced that she was going to have all of her department heads at the DOJ read Our Portion of Hell. While I should have been flattered, I was horrified that DOJ attorneys would sit around the table in the Attorney General’s conference room and read about my life, and then have a book club discussion about it.
While I was not comfortable being the subject of this book club discussion, I knew that Ms. Reno was trying to make an important point to the DOJ attorneys: she wanted them to know that their work in enforcing the law shaped, created, and changed the lives of millions in the nation. Indeed, in 1959, the Department of Justice sued white landowners in Fayette County under the 1957 Voting Rights Act to prevent them from interfering with African Americans right to vote. The Department of Justice also became a party to the 1965 school desegregation case, John McFerren, Jr. v. Fayette County Board of Education, where my brother served as the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to desegregate Fayette County Schools. In her opinion, my parents’ activism and my life experiences represented what the law could achieve in its finest moments. I finally persuaded Ms. Reno that I did not want to be “Exhibit A” for this department lesson and she dropped the idea – reluctantly so.
While I found Ms. Reno to be a very private person, she would reveal the most private details about her family and upbringing in a large crowd. It was apparent to me that she did so to show people she understood their suffering, concerns, and struggles because she was one of them.
In my final motorcade ride with Ms. Reno a few days near the end of President Bill Clinton’s Administration, Ms. Reno asked me about my plans at the end of that administration. I told her I planned to stay in Washington, DC. She sat thinking, while chewing on a pen (as she often did), and stated: “you need to go home!” She continued, “you can spend the best years of your professional life living in Washington, going to the theatre, hanging out with people who went to the same schools you attended, and who are part of the same middle and upper-class circles you will travel in. People are not MADE in Washington they are made in their hometowns. If you are not careful, you will have spent the best years of life having made no contributions to the very community that created you. GO HOME!”
Our communications did not end there. After she left office, I visited Ms. Reno at her home in Miami and attended an awards ceremony honoring her in Washington, DC. Ms. Reno nearly scared a Hooks Institute graduate student to death, by calling the Hooks Institute and stating, “Hello this is Janet Reno, I’d like to speak to Daphene McFerren.” The graduate student came into my office looking stricken and said “JANET RENO IS ON THE LINE! I am convinced Ms. Reno was chuckling on the other end.
Ms. Reno was so special to all who knew her. She lived a life in service to others aspiring to the highest ideals of public service. I will always remember the advice she gave me about making tough decisions: In public life, “you are going to get criticized anyway, so you might as well do the right thing.” Ms. Reno tried to do the right thing as Attorney General of the United States. Equally as important, she cared deeply about and appreciated the people who worked for her and the people she served. I am a lucky and grateful recipient of the gifts of her life.
I will deeply miss my mentor, friend, and former boss, Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States.
Daphene R. McFerren
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change