Janet Reno, first U.S. woman attorney general, dies at 78

(Reuters) - Blunt-spoken Janet Reno, who served eight years as the first woman U.S. attorney general and authorized the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound in Texas just weeks into the job, died on Monday at age 78.

Reno died in Miami of Parkinson’s disease complications, according to her goddaughter, Gabrielle D’Alemberte. Reno was diagnosed with the progressive central nervous system disorder in 1995.

Reno served as the United States’ top law enforcement official during Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidency from 1993 to 2001, becoming the longest-tenured attorney general of the 20th century.

She authorized the seizure by federal agents in 2000 of 6-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez from relatives in Miami, as well as the government’s huge antitrust case against Microsoft Corp in 1998.

“Janet Reno was an American original, a public servant whose intellect, integrity and fierce commitment to justice helped shape our nation’s legal landscape,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Clinton said on Monday, “As attorney general for all eight years of my presidency, Janet worked tirelessly to make our communities safer, protect the vulnerable, and to strike the right balance between seeking justice and avoiding abuse of power.”

The former Miami prosecutor, picked by Clinton only after his first two choices for the job ran into trouble, exhibited an independent streak and a brusque manner that often upset the White House.

Reno weathered White House complaints that she was not a team player and that she sought too many special prosecutors to investigate cases, including the Whitewater affair involving the finances of the president and first lady Hillary Clinton.

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Reno was only 38 days into the attorney general’s job when she approved the April 19, 1993, FBI raid that led to the deaths of about 80 people, including many children, at the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas.

Federal agents had earlier tried to serve a warrant on the cult’s leader, David Koresh, who said he was the Messiah, for stockpiling weapons. Four agents and six cult members were killed in an ensuing shootout, leading to a 51-day standoff.

With negotiations at an impasse, Reno gave the go-ahead for the raid after hearing reports of child abuse in the compound. The raid on the heavily armed cultists ended in an inferno that engulfed the site.

“I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me,” a grim-looking Reno told a news conference later.

Reno took a personal interest in the political tussle over Elian Gonzalez, the young shipwreck survivor whose mother drowned fleeing Cuba.

Reno met the boy and his Miami relatives, who battled to keep him from returning to communist Cuba, and his father and grandmothers, who wanted to raise Gonzalez in his homeland.

Reno argued that Elian belonged with his father and acted after the Miami relatives defied a U.S. government order to hand him over. She authorized armed agents to take the boy from his relatives’ home in a predawn raid in April 2000 and reunite him with his father, who took him back to Cuba.

The raid infuriated members of Miami’s Cuban exile community, who called her a “witch” and a lackey of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

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In 1998, Reno’s Justice Department brought a huge antitrust case against Microsoft. Two years later, a federal judge ordered the breakup of the software giant because it had ignored his ruling that it had used unlawful monopolistic practices.

The case was settled in 2001 by the administration of President George W. Bush, Clinton’s Republican successor, in terms seen as favorable to Microsoft.

Reno appeared with Clinton after the 1995 truck bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, and vowed to seek the death penalty for the perpetrators.

Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001 become the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. McVeigh said he carried out the attack to punish the U.S. government for the Waco cult raid and another raid in Idaho.

Some comedians made fun of Reno during her time in office, lampooning her appearance and 6-foot-2 height (1.88-meter), among them Will Ferrell who impersonated her on “Saturday Night Live.”

Shortly after leaving office, she appeared on the show next to Ferrell, both wearing identical outfits, in a sketch called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”

Reno was in the job longer than anyone except William Wirt, who held it from November 1817 until March 1829.

Reno ran for governor in Florida in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primary.

Parkinson’s disease caused trembling in her arms. “All it does is shake, and you get used to it shaking after a while,” she told a TV interviewer.

Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami to parents who were newspaper reporters. She attended public schools in Miami and earned a chemistry degree at Cornell University in 1960.

She received her law degree from Harvard three years later, and worked as a lawyer in Miami.

Reporting by Will Dunham and Chris Michaud; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Jonathan Oatis