In the last weeks of her work as our nation’s 78th attorney general, Janet Reno’s office on the southwest corner of the fifth floor of the Justice Department building was under a much-needed renovation, prompting her and her immediate staff to move down the hallway to the venue historically occupied by the solicitor general. It was from that location that, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2001, her final night as our country’s chief federal law enforcement officer, Ms. Reno (as she insisted she be called) hosted a farewell gathering for many of her aides and advisors. I was supremely honored to be invited.
Gathering to Say Farewell
My sister, Susan, and her two children, Christopher and Caroline, were also in Washington, D.C. that weekend to witness the forthcoming inauguration of the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush. I spent the last hours of the work week with them, showing them all around the Main Justice Building, located on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets. Shortly after 5 p.m., the four of us walked up one of the circular stairways from my office on the second floor to Ms. Reno’s temporary – and soon to be vacated – conference room three floors above.
James L. Santelle, Chicago 1983, served in the Reno Justice Department in Washington, D.C. as the principal deputy director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys from 1999 to 2001. From 2001 to 2002 and again from 2010 to 2015, he served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
The casual party was already underway – no speeches, no awards, and no fanfare, reflecting Ms. Reno’s understated and self-effacing manner, both public and private. Shortly after we entered, she spotted what were unmistakably the two youngest guests among the modest but growing crowd: my 9-year-old nephew and my 4-year-old niece. Leaving her other adult well-wishers behind, Ms. Reno moved across the room, bent her 6-foot frame slightly downward, and extended her greeting handshake to the more diminutive children in her company, as I introduced them and my sister to the first woman in our nation’s history to serve as “the people’s lawyer.”
But she wasn’t done. Sensing correctly that my nephew and niece had never before visited these hallowed places formerly occupied by iconic attorneys general such as Robert Jackson, Tom Clark, Elliot Richardson, Edward Levi, and Robert Kennedy, Ms. Reno escorted my nephew and niece into her private (but temporary) office, urged them to crawl up on the interior sill of the window at the southeastern-most corner of the room, and showed them how to crane their small necks and heads ever so slightly to catch the view, some 10 blocks away, of the U.S. Supreme Court building, bathed that clear night in a spectacular, bright light.
Overtly proud of the history of the institution for which she had been steward for the previous eight years – and also of the magnificence of the building from which she had executed those majestic duties – she explained that the architect had purposefully designed and positioned the office of the solicitor general so that its occupant could, with modest effort, always view the ultimate tribunal of justice in our nation.
Wedding Intellect With Compassion
That was Janet Reno: the longest-tenured U.S. attorney general of the 20th century, who never lost her eloquent capacity to engage others, young and old, positioned and prosaic, with warmth, energy, humanity, and grace. A chemistry major at Cornell University before studying law at Harvard, she not only understood but applied an alchemy that wedded intellect with compassion, judgment with diplomacy, industry with integrity, and professional commitment with life-affirming zeal. In ways not frequently on public display – her demeanor was often portrayed as stolid, matter-of-fact, and even clinical in the midst of the media-intensive events of her tenure – she was, for those of us who knew her and worked closely with her, actually profoundly sentimental, effervescent, introspective, and joyful, all at once.
Those supremely human qualities were much on display in her daily, early-morning meetings among the operational heads of the various units and offices that were and still are, collectively, the U.S. Department of Justice. Designed and run to ensure that, as each business day began, she had the most current information and perspective about “all things Justice,” she called on each department leader, seated before her around the large table in her historic conference room, to tell her, as she insisted, “both the good and especially the bad.”
She listened attentively, voraciously, even, taking copious notes on the legal pad that was, at the start of the meeting, already filled with words and phrases she had handwritten throughout the previous day and well into the evening and from which she shared with her senior staff what we all affectionately called her “get backs” – as in, the questions, the issues, the events, the concerns, and, most importantly, confirmation of the verifiable facts on which we were to “get back” to her.
In ways not frequently on public display … she was,
for those of us who knew her and worked closely with
her, actually profoundly sentimental, effervescent,
introspective, and joyful, all at once.
Those post-dawn gatherings were, for all of us, wondrous times of modest apprehension (if we found ourselves unprepared in our homework assignments from the previous day) and professional delight (reveling in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a mission, a vision articulated and advanced by a genuine American hero).
They were also the times when Ms. Reno revealed herself to be both a refined scholar who understood and held sacred the rule of law and a genuine public servant, attentive to what a government can and should do to make the nation and the world better and brighter for all its people.
Her get-back list would routinely include everything from challenges to our national security posed by drug cartels to educational and employment opportunities for citizens returning to their communities from incarceration; from invidious schemes to keep people of color from the housing accommodations in which they were interested to investigation initiatives focusing on fraud in securities transactions, commercial lending, and business financing; and from firearms-related violence in our nation’s urban and rural communities to the effective, targeted enforcement of laws promoting clean air, clean water, and clean lands – among many other things.
Responding to Other People’s Challenges
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Through all of that, her indefatigable curiosity and her equally authentic interest in responding to the challenges of other people were much on display. Along with her security detail, we were, one morning, all bemused and vaguely stunned to hear her recount the 10-minute conversation that she had pursued the previous evening with the homeless man who had taken his spot for the night on a public heating grate at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 9th Street. On her late-night walk back to her modest apartment at the Lansburgh Building, about three blocks north of the Main Justice Building, Ms. Reno had stopped to take in and ponder the life history of the young man, the conflicts that had left him impoverished, and the aspirations that he held for a good job and a decent place to live.
The following morning, the attorney general of the United States wanted to know what we could do for him. And so, soon after, several of us were assigned responsibility for designing a new structure for aligning the law enforcement functions and capacities of the 93 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices with the remedial programs of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services in impoverished neighborhoods. (We also tracked down the young man on the heating grate and, after inviting him to lunch with us in the basement cafeteria of the Justice Department, connected him to an employment services unit of the District of Columbia.)
Seeking Diverse Perspectives
In some matters seemingly insignificant and others dramatically important, Ms. Reno consistently exhibited a profound humility, a self-deprecating modesty that consistently eclipsed and attractively transcended the lofty office to which she had been elevated. Perhaps because of her gentle and unassuming beginnings – she was born in 1938 in Miami and raised principally in a modest home constructed of cyprus and brick that her mother built on the border of the Florida Everglades (and to which she returned following her service as the attorney general) – Ms. Reno routinely acknowledged the power of doubt and the strength that come from examination, reexamination, and, sometimes, even reversal of decisions and abandonment of long-held beliefs, when changed circumstances or more complete expositions of the truth compelled them.
She embraced (and frequently articulated) the notion that she enjoyed no monopoly on truth and wisdom; to the contrary, she not only sought out the counsel and the perspective of people whose life experience was far less extensive and legal acumen far less sophisticated than her own but also encouraged – reveled even – in the occasionally off-beat perspective, the seemingly irrelevant reference that was, in fact, near-perfect in application and razor sharp in clarity.
In the midst of a modest, collegial debate among her staff about the merits and demerits of conceding loss, however temporary, on a modest, interagency policy squabble, she once recited the commissioning language of Thomas Wolfe’s 1934 masterpiece, You Can’t Go Home Again:
“Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken to me in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: ‘To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth….’”
As an English major who has this kind of thing stored quiescent but accessible in my brain, I joined her, to the curious, smiling reaction of my “get back” colleagues, in Wolfe’s final phrases:
“‘Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending – a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.’”
Assuming Responsibility for Decisions
Ms. Reno assumed responsibility for both the immediate and long-term implications of her choices, such as when she determined, after the breakdown of meaningful discussion and familial negotiation in early 2000, to direct that federal agents remove 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the Miami home of his uncle and return him to his father in Havana. Her anguishing decision, the tempered product of staff debate and personal reflection, provoked condemnation among many sectors of south Florida’s Cuban-American community, but she remained steadfast in her resolve and long kept at her personal desk a photograph of a smiling Elian back in the arms of his father.
Some seven years earlier, near the start of her tenure, Ms. Reno – similarly after collaborative, deliberative examination and painstaking exhaustion of other remedies – had ended a 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. In the wake of the deaths of adults and children in the conflagration that followed the assault on the building, the attorney general invoked her often-repeated decisional touchstone, observing that “we will never know what was the right thing to do.” She also took full and unconditional responsibility for the consequences of her action and later described April 19, 1993, as the worst day of her life.
That kind of public revelation – she famously once told the media that she didn’t “do spin” – was also what made her one of the most popular attorneys general of our contemporary history, even as elected and appointed officials on both sides of the political aisle found things in the products of her independence, her intellect, her stability, and her integrity to criticize.
Serving to Full Capacity
In 1995, after noticing an atypical trembling in her left hand, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which ultimately claimed her life. She announced her medical condition in the same news conference in which she declared that it would not affect her capacity to do her job.
It didn’t, and she worked tirelessly and with only an occasional, brief “vacation” throughout the final years of the Clinton Administration, becoming the second-longest-tenured attorney general in U.S. history. She was outdone only by William Wirt, who is usually credited with expanding and affirming the influential position and national status of the Justice Department well beyond the terms of Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams in which he served. More than 160 years later, Ms. Reno was similarly responsible for elevating the delivery of justice for all Americans to a place beyond aspiration and to cognizable, if imperfect, reality.
One week before her departure from public service, she said this to the hundreds of admiring Justice Department employees gathered in the Great Hall of the building to hear her valedictory remarks:
“…[S]pread the message. Speak to young people. Let them understand that though there are risks, there is nothing more challenging, nothing more rewarding than using the law the right way to serve the American people…. The rule of law is fragile, … based on people…. Don’t become complacent. Remember, if people stand by, democracy is at risk…. [D]on’t let that happen…. After eight years in this job, after seeing America, I know two things: I have never believed so strongly in this nation’s future, in the rightness of its ways, as I do. And I have never believed so strongly that we must continue to fight so that the law issues from all of the people, not just some, [and] that it’s framed by true mutual confidence and respect that honors the diversity of this nation.”
A Rising Wind
In the same renovation that prompted Ms. Reno to spend the last weeks of her tenure in the workspace normally occupied by the solicitor general, the builders removed and discarded many of the original, aluminum clocks that had adorned various halls of the Main Justice Building from the time of its original design and construction in the early 1930s by architects Charles Borie and Clarence Zantzinger. Days before my sister, my niece, and my nephew enjoyed a private tour of the attorney general’s temporary office, a cherished colleague of mine, Janet Craig, convinced me to “dumpster dive,” retrieving the unceremoniously abandoned timepieces.
On Ms. Reno’s first day as a private citizen – the same day on which she surreptitiously traveled from Washington, D.C. to New York City to appear that evening alongside Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell in the last incarnation of “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” – Janet Craig and I decided to have the aluminum clocks cleaned and restored to their original, working grandeur. Years later, when, as a private citizen, she was barnstorming the nation in her much-heralded red pickup truck, Ms. Reno stopped in Milwaukee to speak at a special event commemorating the role and the influence of women in animating our national experience.
A few minutes before she took the stage at Uihlein Hall of the Performing Arts Center to talk, once again, about the possibilities and the promises of the future, the now-former attorney general granted me an audience. We reminisced briefly but fondly about the grand challenges, the enduring achievements, the staggering disappointments, and the quiet satisfactions of her time in leadership of our nation, and I gave to her one of the now-restored original clocks that had, until late in her term, kept track of the minutes and the hours of her virtue, her understanding, her compassion, her devotion, and her humanity.
Recalling our knowing literary exchange at a “get back” meeting of so many years earlier, she remarked: “A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
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What’s the most important advice you can give a new government lawyer?
One of the most enduring legacies of any U.S. Attorney is her or his selection and employment of responsible, industrious, thoughtful, intelligent, and committed people to encumber all-important positions as civil and criminal litigators and as professional staff who join those lawyers in the pursuit of justice. True to that responsibility, I routinely welcomed and commissioned attorneys and nonattorney personnel of the U.S. Department of Justice with these notions, not unique to me:
As representatives of a federal agency whose name is also an aspiration – justice – we are, through our chosen words and deliberative actions, the representatives not only of the greatest nation on the planet but also of its people, who entrust us each hour of each day with both tremendous power and profound responsibility. As stewards of the executive branch of the federal government, we are charged with executing the law as it has been written by legislators – but also mandated to do so with all of the sound judgment, balanced discretion, experience-based wisdom, and caring humanity that we can muster.
That means that we bring to our work both inside and outside the courts an abiding commitment to do what is right and good and fair and decent in each individual case, every decision substantive or procedural, and all words written and spoken. We recognize with humility that we are imperfect, but we embrace with vigor the opportunity to deliver to our diverse constituents our very best in adherence to the rule of law, coupled with our supreme devotion to make their lives productive, secure, and hopeful.
James L. Santelle, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, retired.
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