Sunday, December 11, 2016
Good morning, everyone. To President [Bill] Clinton; Sandy D’Alemberte; distinguished guests; and most importantly Maggy [Reno Hurchalla], Hunter [Reno] and all of Ms. Reno’s family: I bring you greetings and remembrances from her Department of Justice family.
Early in her career, someone famously told Janet Reno that “ladies don’t become lawyers.” This being free advice, she took it for exactly what it was worth. And I am so grateful – as is our nation – that she did. Further, it is absolutely fitting that history books will pay no notice to whoever uttered that pithy absurdity, but they will certainly pay tribute to Janet Reno. In so many ways – as the first woman to serve as Attorney General in American history; as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer in a tumultuous and eventful time; and as a straight-talking, no-nonsense public servant of the
highest integrity – Ms. Reno was a historic figure. She broke barriers and defied expectations. The Department of Justice she left was one that was stronger, wiser, and more compassionate than the one she had inherited.
Janet Reno was undoubtedly aware of her historic role. But she never let her place in history – or anyone for that matter – define her. The weight of her responsibilities never got in the way of her fundamental kindness, a fact that so many department employees still recall. And in a life filled with achievement, one of her proudest was that she cared for her mother as she was dying of cancer, and ensured that her final days were spent in comfort, peace and love. Because she always knew that what really mattered in this life were the connections we have with one another. That acknowledgement of those connections – the blessed ties that bind all of us, as caretaker of our loved ones, as stewards of this land and of the law, as Americans – was at the core of her strength.
When I was thinking of my remarks for today – in the five-minute time frame Maggy so generously gave me – I thought about focusing on the meetings I had with Ms. Reno around her conference room table, now mine. I thought about focusing on the many consequential matters I saw her consider with wisdom and grace. But what kept coming to my mind and to my heart were the first time I met her and the last time I saw her.
When Janet Reno became Attorney General, I was a young federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. A few years into a job that I loved, I must confess that to me and so many of my colleagues, especially the women, Main Justice was a somewhat mysterious place down I-95 populated mostly by dark-suited men whose main distinguishing characteristic seemed to be whether they were grey or whether they were balding. When Janet Reno came onto the scene – a woman, a Southerner, an original who famously “didn’t do spin” – we were electrified. I was inspired by her. I wanted to be like her. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to achieve 6’2”. I had to settle for being Attorney General instead. It has not been a bad trade.
I first met Janet Reno at the National Black Prosecutors Conference, being held in Washington in her first year in office. She spoke to us about the importance of having prosecutors who based their decisions on what was best for the country, not what was best for their careers. She told us never to forget the many experiences and backgrounds that had brought us there, because that would be our strength as prosecutors. After her talk, she was swarmed with well-wishers. We wanted to shake her hand, to take a photo, to just be near her. And she stayed and spoke with every person who wanted her attention. She posed for pictures, and she asked each of us, thoughtfully and seriously, about ourselves. Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Even today, no one in that room has forgotten how Ms. Reno made us feel – she made us feel valued, she made us feel heard, she made us feel that we could do anything.
That was one of her great gifts. She was one of the best listeners you’ll ever meet. The last time I saw her was earlier this year, in the house her mother had built. She was dealing with difficult health challenges, but she didn’t want to discuss her own health or make idle chitchat. She wanted to hear about the Department of Justice. She wanted to hear about our work in civil rights and in community policing. She wanted to hear about the tough decisions before our department – the kind of tough decisions she had faced every day. And as I spoke, she listened – with that same patient, intent gaze I remembered from so many years ago. And because it was a good day for her, we were able to speak together as well. And as she had so many years ago, she made me feel that I could do anything.
I know that all of us here today have similar stories of how she inspired us in ways large and small. We’re here to honor and remember her. And both the lesson and the challenge she has left for all of us is to decide – how will our actions make others feel? So, as we leave here today with our hearts still full, let us do so with a mission. A mission to carry Janet Reno’s legacy with us, and make the people in our lives feel valued, feel heard, and feel that they, too, can do anything.
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