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Reno encourages students to tackle their generation’s challenges “step by step”

Janet Reno covered a myriad of topics during the 2007 Tresolini Lecture.

Former United States Attorney General Janet Reno recounted her tenure during the tumultuous Clinton years, proposed solutions for a host of societal ills, and drew distinctions between her policies and principles and those of the Bush administration in a wide-ranging talk at Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center on April 5.

Her talk, titled “Enforcing the Rule of Law,” drew nearly 700 people, who warmly greeted the former chief law enforcement officer as she walked to the podium. Tall, thin, and markedly more frail than she appeared during her days in the national spotlight, Reno spoke in a halting and contemplative manner.

Reno, the first woman U.S. Attorney General, recounted many of the most controversial issues she faced in her role: the Elian Gonzalez controversy, the Unabomber, the investigations into the first bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

The manner is which she handled Waco, she says, was the “most difficult situation I faced in my entire life,” and she takes full responsibility for the outcome.

“I wondered what we could have differently,” she says of the incident where Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished. “I realize that we have to combine, with other efforts, an urge to shed greater light on issues such as Waco to resolve issues without violence.”

Reno returned frequently to a theme of addressing violence during the formative years of a child’s life, and noted the many programs and initiatives that she developed or supports to reduce street crime and incidences of domestic violence.

“If we start early, even as young as 0 to 3, and start to identify children at risk, we can teach them to resolve differences without guns and violence and fists,” she says.

Moreover, if educators could find a way to engage children in schoolwork that went beyond rote memorization and standardized testing, “they could unlock a brain that could make an extraordinary difference in our country.

“Our children have a message that is just crying out to be heard,” she adds.

Despite taking the unusual step of joining with seven Justice Department officials in openly criticizing the Bush administration for extreme anti-terror policies in late 2006, Reno did not dwell on that development during her speech, and focused more on America’s role as a potential symbol of greatness.

“We need to give people the feeling that they can make a difference, and that our government is worth serving,” she says. “How can we be a great nation that is proud of what we do if we engage in torture?”

Reno's lecture at Zoellner Arts Center was well attended.

Reno came to Lehigh to deliver the Tresolini Lecture, an annual event that brings legal luminaries to campus and is named in honor of former Lehigh government and law professor, Rocco J. Tresolini. Following her talk, she fielded questions from several members of the audience, but declined to offer much commentary on the current controversy surrounding current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’ firing of six U.S. attorneys.

“Janet Reno's lecture was rooted in the sort of sensibility and pragmatism that made her such an effective manager of the Justice Department for nearly eight years,” says Brian Pinaire, assistant professor of political science who organizes the annual event.

“Especially in hindsight, and with current events in mind, it was worth recalling her tenure: its initiatives, its vision, its successes, and even its limitations. As a committed public servant, Reno was able to both acknowledge lessons from the past and direct them toward the future, particularly for younger generations who will soon be asked to address some profound matters of public policy.”

”Just build that house”

Earlier in the day, Reno met with a group of about 25 students, who peppered her with questions that ranged from immigration policies to her often-discussed 2001 appearance on Saturday Night Live alongside Reno imitator Will Ferrell. That guest shot, which featured Reno crashing through a fake brick wall to join Ferrell at the “Janet Reno Dance Party,” was filmed on her last day in office.

“We need to laugh at ourselves more often,” she says. “It helps.”

In that nearly 90-minute session, Reno also shared personal stories of caring for her ailing mother, and helping to raise two children as their legal guardian after their parents died.

She told the young female students who questioned how she handled a demanding role in the adversarial, traditionally male world of national politics that a leading influence in her life was her mother, who lived with Reno until she died in 1992 at the age of 79. A former newspaperwoman for the old Miami News, Jane Wood Reno’s willingness to charge into unchartered waters and take on insurmountable challenges provided a model for her daughter’s career path.

“She always told me that you could do anything you really wanted to do,” says Reno, before launching into the story of how her mother decided to build a new family home with her own hands.

“We lived in a little wooden home on the edge of the Everglades,” she says. “With four children, we were rapidly outgrowing the home, and we couldn’t afford to hire someone to build it.”

Her mother educated herself by talking with brick masons, plumbers and electricians, and she dug the foundation with a pick and a shovel. The home she constructed still stands today.

“In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew came through, my mother was old and frail, but she was totally unconcerned about how the house would withstand the hurricane, because she knew how well she built it,” Reno says.

She advised the students to take on the dire challenges their generation faces—such as rising crime rates, greater disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and even global warming—by applying a similar approach.

“That’s how you do it,” she says. “Step by step, brick by brick. Just build that house.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, April 06, 2007

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