If ever a public official was caught up in a firestorm, it is the US attorney general, Janet Reno, in the wrenching case of Elian Gonzalez. The personal, the political, the diplomatic and the judicial have all collided in the fate of one six-year-old child, and it is with Ms Reno that the buck - as her opponents remark with almost indecent glee - will stop.
Elian - his name is an amalgam of his parents' names, Elisabeth and Juan - is the Cuban boy who was rescued from the Atlantic after surviving a shipwreck that cost his mother her life. His pert, inquisitive face is on front pages all over the world; his antics in the garden of his relatives' modest Miami house are on every television screen almost any hour of the day or night.
Now, though, with his father allowed out of Cuba to claim him back, it is up to Ms Reno, as the chief law officer of the United States, to decide whether the boy stays or goes; whether he remains in the United States with the relatives who have cared for him as their own for the past four months, or returns to Cuba with the father who shared his care after he and Elisabeth were divorced. It is Ms Reno who will be praised, or more likely blamed, for the outcome. This is because the Elian affair has been judged not a custody case but an immigration one, which enables her to overrule the Supreme Court, should it eventually come to rest there.
Were any other two countries involved, the decision would be, if not easy, then uncontroversial. By now Elian would have been returned to his one surviving parent, and his case might never have arrived on Ms Reno's desk. But by his very survival, this particular child has pitted the United States against Cuba, the cocksure winner of the Cold War against that pesky little relic of communism that tweaks the tail of capitalism from across the Florida Straits. And because Cuban immigrants are accorded a privilege unavailable to others - if they once set foot on US soil, they may legally stay - Elian's status is at least contestable.
On the face of it, Janet Reno might not look the ideal attorney general to tackle such a sensitive case. Her seven-year tenure at the Justice Department has been fraught with controversies. She was only the third choice of President Clinton for the job - the previous two were felled by "Nannygate" incidents, after they admitted that they had paid their household help "on the side". The straitlaced Ms Reno, single and childless, threatened no such complications, and was swiftly confirmed by the Senate.
Within weeks of taking office, however, she had authorised the use of massive, quasi-military force to end a stand-off at Waco in Texas between police and the Branch Davidian cult. In the inferno that followed, as many as 80 cult members died. That debacle, whose seventh anniversary falls this week, has still not been fully explained. As attorney general, Ms Reno tendered her resignation, which was refused, and went on television to take the rap.
The storm over Waco had scarcely subsided before the attorney general was back in the court of American political and public opinion. As the succession of White House scandals unfolded, from the Arkansas Whitewater land deal to the Monica Lewinsky affair, she was the gatekeeper. She decided which accusations should be subject to further investigation, and which should not. It was a process that could (and did) lead to indictments of White House staff, the prosecution of presidential friends, and the impeachment of the President. Ms Reno caught flak from both sides: from those who thought - and still think - that she gave Bill and Hillary Clinton an easy pass, and those who saw the Lewinsky investigation, at least, as a gross misjudgment.
The controversies rumble on even into the dying days of the Clinton presidency. Ms Reno's refusal to order a formal investigation into Vice-President Al Gore's political fund-raising in 1996 has drawn all the old Republican venom, and could handicap Mr Gore's own presidential campaign this year. …