The Reluctant Star

Janet Reno arrived in Washington just two months ago, but already she is the most talked-about cabinet member in town. The attorney general walks to work, rides the subway and types memos into her computer herself Reno still hasn't found time to properly decorate her Washington apartment, but her offices on the fifth floor of the Justice Department are adorned with flowers she has received from people who admire her stand-up handling of the Waco affair. Last week Reno spoke with NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu and Bob Cohn. Excerpts:

I don't think the issue is vindication. My whole approach is not to pass judgment. If there's anything we could've done better I'd like to know that. If not, I'd like to make sure we develop guidelines we can follow in the future.

That will be part of my life for all of my life.

I don't know. I think people just like people to be accountable. For the 15 years that I was state attorney in Dade County, sometimes I was popular, other times I wasn't. You can be praised and you can be damned. The important thing is to remember you've got to be accountable to the people. The issue is your knowledge that you tried to do the right thing.

You don't push through things based on political approval. You push through things by [saying]: this is the cost involved, this is the benefit I hope to achieve and these are the reasons I feel that way.

Sure, it's important. But it's very important that, in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, I don't let it go to my head.

I was never accused of wrestling alligators.

I'm going to write a revisionist history of Janet Reno ... Most of the stories are true, but I never swam in the Tamiami Canal with water moccasins and alligators. I swam in the same water with alligators, but not right in the canal.

We have to address some outstanding cases and report to the people and answer as many questions as we possibly can. Then put that behind us and try to establish a principle that we are accountable to the American people. I can't comment on the past, but I'm impressed with the lawyers in the department: [by] their writing ability, their advocacy ability, their judgment, their powers of analysis [and] most of all by their dedication to their country-it sounds corny, but they just simply care.

I'm trying to do what I think is right. Dangerous offenders should be put away. I want to focus on white-collar thugs, who steal people blind through major scams and fraud. I want to make sure we have enough prison cells to house these offenders. If [convicts] have a drug problem, offer them the carrot-and-stick approach: treatment or punishment. I think that approach best achieves my No. 1 goal, which is to prevent crime.

The little black book got too small. I've got a big notebook now.

No, I haven't. We're trying to schedule that.

The president has indicated he'll take the suggestions of the senators of his party. What I've tried to do is review the senators' suggestions and talk to the candidates. I've been impressed. I know the president and I share his deep concern to achieve excellence and diversity. What I hope to build is a real team, where U.S. attorneys don't go do their own thing and Justice doesn't tell them what to do, but that we work together.

[That day] I knew the president had been informed and I felt he would want me to be accountable to the people [to] explain why I'd done it. Perhaps I should say now I know what the press thinks I should do [laughs]. But I feel very comfortable with the president. In this experience, I have an even greater admiration for him.

Every way you look at it, an investment in children is going to pay off. For every dollar we invest in prenatal care we save three dollars in health-care costs in two to three years for treatment related to low birth weight. Working with dropouts at 12 and 13 is too late-they'd already formed inferiority complexes, they didn't have self-respect. I became convinced that we have to approach crime the way you approach parenting; you've got to have punishment that's fair, objective, that's carried out when it's threatened. You've got to let kids know that poverty, social ills of the world, are no excuse for putting a gun up against somebody's head.

It makes me want to understand what we can do to address the issues of cults and a whole range of issues that go beyond cults. One of the most touching things I saw was in a school in Dade County once. One class built a model of their community, [where] there were abandoned cars and shabby lawns and unpainted houses, and people sleeping on the streets. But if you looked at how they envisioned it, the lawns were clean, there were trees, the houses were painted. [They wrote]: I want my neighborhood to be a place where there are no more guns, no more shouting, no more fights, and people don't hurt each other anymore.

At the rate I'm going I probably should just give it out to everyone because I'm never at home.

I'm a person just like anyone else. I can't let it go to my head. I just try to figure out what the right thing is, then try to do it.

I can't imagine why anybody finds Janet Reno all that interesting.