The Gentle General: Janet Reno's 'Consubstantiality' with the Press

Article excerpt

On February 11, 1993, after both Zoe Baird and Judge Kimba Wood had withdrawn their names from consideration in a firestorm of controversy, President Clinton nominated Janet Reno to become his Attorney General. He said, "everyone I know who knows and has worked with [her] agrees that she possesses [the] one quality most essential to being attorney general - unquestioned integrity (New York Times, Feb. 12, 1993)." An "experienced prosecutor of plainly liberal views (Eastland, 1993)," Reno caused some conservatives concern that her "inclinations [ran] more to social work than to fighting crime (Congressional Quarterly, March 13, 1993)." Still, she was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, on March 12, 1993.

"Washington, a city that pulses with conformity," as Cloud points out, "loves visitors with colorful pasts (p. 46)," and mythologizing of Reno, whose reporter-mother wrestled Florida alligators, and "who walked to work the day after her swearing in through a violent blizzard, her security agents sloshing after her" (Blumenfeld, p. 186) immediately began. Within barely a month after her appointment, the news media and citizens had to deal with the vivid, fiery images of the Branch Davidian compound destruction in Waco, Texas. Reno's image and popularity were sorely tested under intense and frequently skeptical scrutiny. She had "always pretty much captivated Washington with one gutsy performance after another," but it was her responses to difficult questioning about Waco that helped her achieve "full-fledged folk-hero status" (Cloud, p. 46).

Announcing that "the buck stops here," she accepted full responsibility for the disaster and seemed to emerge as Johnston put it, "not only unscathed but also with her recognition and popularity enhanced." Her "plain-vanilla style and unstudied demeanor seemed to connect with ordinary Americans, and she was cast in a sympathetic light as someone who tried to deal peaceably with a zealot." Davidson (Wall Street Journal) explains:

In other countries, an official in Ms. Reno's position might have been forced to resign. Here, her forthright willingness to bear the burden of a bad decision gave her the image of a strong public servant concerned with honesty, rather than a politician intent on spinning the story to make herself look as good as possible.

This paper is a brief examination of how this public person constructed herself and was co-constructed by the media. I look at her special speech to the National Press Club (NPC) on July 1, 1993 in Washington, D.C. and a variety of press observations of her performance. An earlier version of this paper, supplemented by a C-SPAN videotape segment, was given at the annual meeting of the Eastern Communication Association, Washington, D.C., May 1994. I paid little attention then to the location of the room, "Everglades," but in keeping with that serendipity, I begin here with a selection of Washington Post, coverage of Reno:

She grew in this damp soil. She thrived in this gluey air. Here in the Everglades, Janet Reno climbed into her canoe, and for hours watched the stars float on the fiver. . . . Here in the Tamiami Canal, Reno swam with water moccasins and alligators. Here by the fire pit, she helped the Indians stew turtles . . .

Reno came from the swamp. Now she goes to a swamp, to a weedy bureaucracy that sits on drained marshland. . . . The task is bottomless; maybe her background fits (p. 186). (Cosmopolitan, July 1993, reprinted from Washington Post.)

This shows the journalistic routine of contexting that so characterized Reno reportage (with several exceptions) in 1993 and 1994. While Reno may have trouble naming news people, they have no trouble whatsoever naming - or identifying - her:

She pronounces it 'Kuh-PELL.' Of course, to the average Washington power player, it's pronounced "Ted" with a dinner-party familiarity, but the name of one of Washington's best-known journalists falters on Janet Reno's lips because frankly, she hasn't been to many Washington dinner parties and she hasn't watched Nightline or anything else on television . …