On the next to last morning of our nation’s most dreadful campaign, my wife questioned whether it’s possible to be a politician without losing one’s soul. As I started to name those I knew who had kept theirs, word came that my old friend Janet Reno had died. I rested my case.
Her integrity ran broad and deep.
Reporters liked to write about the little things, such as carrying change to feed Washington parking meters while she was attorney general or refusing to haggle over the price of a new red truck because she didn’t want to take favors.
And there were the big things, like taking the blame for the disastrous FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco.
That was representative of the fullest measure of her character, which was an unflinching candor. No matter what she said, you knew she wasn’t shading PR spinning anything.
That trait served Florida especially well in 1972, when she was staff director for the judiciary committee in the Florida House of Representatives. It was tasked with creating a modern and efficient judicial system to replace a century-old hodgepodge that confounded even lawyers trying to figure out in which courts to file cases.
There were so many people with turf to protect—including circuit judges jealous of their prestige, lesser judges who wanted to keep their sinecures or become circuit judges, municipal judges and justices of the peace who didn’t have to be lawyers, elected constables independent of the elected sheriffs, and legislators with friends in all those places—that the Constitution Revision of 1968 skipped over that area altogether.
The Legislature tried again in 1970 but the voters, wisely, saw that plan as insufficient improvement and rejected it.
A rare combination of circumstances presented the chance to try again if the amendment could be put on the ballot at a special election in March 1972. Gov. Reubin Askew, House Speaker Richard A. Pettigrew and the judiciary chairman, Rep. Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, were enthusiastic. It was D’Alemberte who had chosen Reno, a fellow lawyer and friend from Miami, for his staff.
There was Dempsey Barron, the judiciary chair in the Senate, to contend with. A rough-edged conservative from Panama City, he was equally committed to court reform, but he wanted it his way. Compromising with him — on that or anything — would be difficult.
Barron did not suffer fools gladly, and he had no use for anyone, fellow legislator or not, who might try to finesse him.
But he respected people who could speak bluntly to him and not back down.
That’s where Reno saved the day. She became Barron’s de facto staff director as well as D’Alemberte’s, partly because the Senate was cheap about hiring employees. She also captured and held Barron’s respect with her plain-speaking—and by not showing fear of him as others at the Capitol sometimes did.
“It would not have passed both houses without her,” Pettigrew told me on the day she died.
After that success, Pettigrew ran for the state Senate, against a powerful veteran there, and Reno helped him campaign to such an extent that she neglected her own campaign for the Florida House.
“She thought that it was enough just to be a Democrat,” Pettigrew said.
It was a familiar mistake—one that came home again with far larger consequences just this week.
The Republican who defeated her — a first-time event in Dade County — was as surprised as she was.
But for that, she might have gone on to be governor or a U.S. Senator. Instead, she returned to Tallahassee to help Pettigrew rewrite the state criminal code. Not long after, Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein hired her and she succeeded him, by Askew’s appointment, when Gerstein retired.
Reno laughed as much as anyone when Askew, who was tone-deaf to innuendo, was asked why he had chosen her over others and replied, “She stacks up better.”
When Parkinson’s disease finally took her life Monday morning, I thought it was a pity that she did not live to see the first woman elected president. It turned out to be a blessing that she did not live to see what happened instead.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina.