Out of America: No-frills Reno finds herself out of fashion

WASHINGTON - Who is the most talked-about member of the Clinton cabinet? Not the dry-as- dust Secretary of State, Warren Christopher; certainly not the unassuming William Perry who, all being well, takes over the Defense Department in a week or two; nor even Lloyd Bentsen, that courtly, foxy old Texan who is Secretary of the Treasury. The accolade, beyond doubt, must go to a lady of no previous federal experience who last March was confirmed by the Senate as the first female Attorney-General in the country's history. But how long Janet Reno will hang on to the job is quite another matter.

Washington is a city of irrational moodswings where judgements are instant and perceptions all. But even by its standards, the experiences of Ms Reno are instructive. She was Bill Clinton's third choice to head the Justice Department, a state prosecutor from Miami much admired and not a little feared. Above all, however, she was certifiably free of potential 'Nannygate' embarrassments. Hardly a month had passed and a fiasco made her a heroine. That Janet Reno had personally approved the calamitous FBI raid on Waco was irrelevant. Unlike her boss she took the responsibility - and became the most popular politician in the land.

In her own words, Janet Reno is an 'awkward old maid'. She is almost as tall as Clinton himself. Flat shoes and sensible skirts are the nearest she comes to fashion. Her temperament is equally short of frills. She is brave, unnervingly direct and an instinctive sympathiser with the underdog.

For a devoted public which still sends her hundreds of letters every week she is 'Mother Justice', a fount of honesty and straight talking in an administration not greatly esteemed for such qualities. For the Clinton White House and the media, however, such charms have long since worn off. As a Washington Times headline put it, yesterday's heroine has turned into 'A 6 Foot 1 Inch Headache'. Now, even her staunchest supporters would concede she has had a wretched run of late. But for anyone who bothered to look, the makings of a headache were plain as long ago as last June.

Mr Clinton had just ditched Lani Guinier, his nominee to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. In a gesture of defiance, Ms Reno gave Ms Guinier a Department briefing room from which to lambast the President on the airwaves. In October, Ms Reno flatly rejected a White House plan to merge the FBI with other law enforcement agencies under her control. Next, just as the White House was getting tough on crime, she came out in opposition to mandatory sentences for first-time offenders.

Last week came the biggest embarrassment yet, as Deputy Attorney-General Philip Heymann resigned, saying in so many words he found her impossible to work with. Before, a struggling Mr Clinton had to grin and bear the insubordination. Now his approval ratings are up around 60 per cent and his aides vent their irritation. The readiness to accept blame for Waco? Mere 'grandstanding'. Heymann's departure only proved the Attorney-General was an incompetent; maybe, they whisper, the wrong person resigned.

These anonymous hatchetmen do have a point. A federal department of 92,000 employees would test any manager, let alone an untried newcomer to Washington. At times Ms Reno is indecisive; it took her five months to sack the former FBI director William Sessions after he had been accused of ethics violations. She is prone to make ringing declarations of policy which are never followed through. But in truth many difficulties are not of her making.

Personnel problems have dogged this presidency from the outset, but nowhere more than at the Justice Department. As lawyers, both Clintons claim special expertise. But their skills do not extend to staff appointments. More than a year into the administration, four out of 10 assistant attorney-generals - the Department's all-important field commanders - have yet to be chosen.

And now 'Whitewater', where after insisting it was unnecessary, Ms Reno has named an independent prosecutor to probe the Clintons' financial dealings in Arkansas. What must rankle most is the implication that her impartiality could not be trusted. 'The President didn't hire me to be a loyal soldier,' she said once. 'He hired me to be a lawyer for the people.' The people are still with her. But Ms Reno's days in the cabinet look numbered.

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