Janet Reno: 'Are You Ready To Go?'

Our long domestic nightmare is over. After two embarrassing installments of Nannygate, the Clinton administration last week finally picked a candidate for attorney general who seemed to be purer than Caesar's wife. Not a Zoe, not a Kimba, just-plain-Janet Reno who was a lot like the New Feel president himself. a socially liberal, prosecutorially tough innovator who could restore confidence in the federal government. Reno said that when she was brought to the White House last week, Clinton never actually told her she had the job. "He didn't really say, 'Do you want it?'" she told The Miami Herald on her return to Florida. "It was just, 'Well, are you ready to go?'"

While Reno has had her share of criticism in 15 years as state's attorney for Greater Miami, neither her integrity nor her motives has ever been questioned. "In a criminal-justice cesspool," says James K. Green, president of the Florida ACLU, "Janet Reno is as pure as the driven snow." This was the official who had her driver put quarters in the meter even when she parked for county business. And the public servant who once asked for a special prosecutor to handle complaints that her mother's pet peacocks were disturbing the neighbors. All that and she says she's never hired any illegal help or failed to pay her taxes. After Baird and after Wood, the third time appeared to be a charm.

That's exactly what the White House was hoping for in what became an Abbott-and-Costello attempt to find an attorney general. In the 20 days between Baird's forced withdrawal and Reno's nomination (during which Wood was nearly selected), Clinton considered more than a dozen names. He interviewed six to eight of them in person or by phone, according to a senior administration aide. The list included men, yet Clinton preferred to honor his goal of picking the first female attorney general. This time around, he shared the names with Senate Judiciary chairman Joseph Biden, who was angry at not being consulted when Baird was nominated.

The 54-year-old Reno first came to the attention of the president through his wife's brother Hugh Rodham, who is a public defender in Dade County. Last year Hillary Clinton met Reno during a campaign swing and the two hit it off. By last week the president had settled on a shortlist of women. Reno was always the front runner. Her vigorous prosecutions of deadbeat dads, and spousal- and child-abuse cases, helped to make her stand apart. "There was no second choice," says a White House official. Reno's strengths were underscored by the fact that she got selected despite her personal opposition to capital punishment. Federal Judge Rya Zobel's name fell off the final list in part because she didn't favor the death penalty, which Clinton does.

Reno's ace was being a prosecutor in Dade County, one of the nation's toughest crime regions-the place that gave "Miami Vice" so much primetime fodder. She supervises a staff of 900 employees that brings 40,000 felony cases a year. Baird's nanny problem alone probably doomed her, but her lack of crimefighting experience didn't help. Reno's political skills, too, raised her stock at the White House. She's a pro-choice Democrat who's managed to win re-election four times in a conservative stronghold; last time she ran unopposed. Her deftness was displayed last week when she addressed allegations made over the years by her 1988 Republican opponent that she is a lesbian. "[Jack Thompson] always worries about my sexual preference," she told The Miami Herald. "I am just an awkward old maid who has a very great attraction to men."

Reno is known to work hard, listen well and pay full sticker price for cars to avoid even the hint of impropriety. But the Reno eccentricity transcends the office. Sitting with friends on the porch of the house her parents built when she was a child, Reno is an animated storyteller in the best of Southern traditions. She's paddled the Everglades most of her life. She knows the local Indian lore as if it were personal history. "The place was right out of 'Tobacco Road,'" says Madelyn Miller, a friend from Cornell undergraduate days who spent time with the Reno family. Reno's parents were local celebrities in their own right. Her father was a Miami Herald police reporter for more than 40 years. Her mother, also a journalist, was an alligator-wrestler and an honorary princess of the Mikasuki Indians.

Reno's roughest time as prosecutor came in 1980, two years into her first term. Four police officers were put on trial by her office for beating a black motorcyclist to death. They were acquitted, kindling riots in the ghettos. Angry black teens chanted, "Reno, Reno, Reno!" But she learned from it, becoming more accessible to the community and winning the support of local black leaders, even if she hasn't shed her reputation for losing some big ones involving prosecutions of police officers and alleged child-abusers. Four years later, campaigning for re-election, Reno astounded critics by marching through riot-scarred Overtown and Liberty City trailing an eight-piece Boy Scout band.

Her abilities will be sorely tested at the rudderless Justice Department. Allegations of corruption or mismanagement have marked the tenures of each of the last four A.G.s. Career lawyers at the department-long its backbone-are demoralized. One of Reno's first tasks will be to work with the White House to find a new person to run the FBI. Current Director William Sessions has been charged in a department report with a range of lapses in ethics; a senior White House official says that Clinton will fire Sessions as soon as a new attorney general is confirmed.

That will not happen until at least early March, when the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up Reno. In the interim, Justice continues to be in the hands of Stuart Gerson, a holdover from the Bush administration. He's in regular contact with the White House, yet it's Clinton confidant Webb Hubbell who really is the president's eyes and ears at the department. "Right now, it's hard to have any confidence in the answers that come from upstairs," says one Justice lawyer. "We really need some leadership." Sort of makes you wonder, as the president himself joked last week, why Janet Reno wasn't picked in the first place.