Can `Real Person' Reno Make a Real Difference in D.C.?

WHEN Janet Reno meets with the press, she's quietly dignified. There's no kidding around when an important subject is raised. But she relates so warmly to everyone that, well, let Ms. Reno explain herself, as she did the other morning over breakfast.

"In talking to young people" when she was a state's attorney in Florida, "one of the things kids seemed impressed with was that I was a real person, like real people. And if there is anything I can say to explain why I've had this popularity" since coming to Washington, "it is because of that."

In a brief introduction I said that "you have gained widespread public approval and a lot of people are cheering for you" and asked: "But can you as attorney general make a real difference in the next 3-1/2 years?"

First, Reno responded joshingly about her popularity: "My brother-in-law says he was going to send me a banana peel so I could slip on it and bring me down to earth. He said to enjoy it while you can."

Then, turning serious, she added: "But to your question about making a difference. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could."

Here came this question: "There's all these big-city killings, day after day, almost like a plague. What can be done about that short term?" Her reply: "You focus on a combination of punishment and prevention. You make a balanced effort aimed at getting the truly bad people out of society by securing prison sentences that absolutely will be served, while at the same time providing prevention programs that focus upon children and giving them a chance to grow up to be strong and constructive human beings."

Reno can be tough when she must be. One reporter was pressing her hard, apparently trying to get her to admit that she was relying too much on an assistant's advice for a call she would be making on whether there had been illegalities in the controversial White House firing of travel-office employees. With stern words she, in effect, told the newsman to cut out the nonsense. "I will make the call," she said. "I told you that."

But, judging by the way the American people have fallen for her, this new arrival in Washington is perfectly at home with just about everyone.

She is arguably the most popular public figure in America today. Who else would be her rival? The President's popularity ratings are still way down. And while Hillary Rodham Clinton holds an impressive support, she also stirs up a lot of criticism. Reno's standing in public favor is more like that which Barbara Bush enjoyed during the early years of the Bush administration.

One assertion Reno makes again and again: "I try to be fair." She said this several times at the breakfast, and I've heard her underscore this approach to problems in her comments and speeches on TV. This is the impression she leaves you with: That no matter the difficulty or complexity of a problem that faces her, like her anguishing decision to end the standoff in Waco, Texas, she is trying very hard to be fair and to do the right thing.

Before leaving the breakfast, Reno was asked about the president's core beliefs. She said that she thought Clinton "believes deeply in people, believes in diversity, and believes in mutual respect based on an understanding of civil rights." Obviously, she and the president were working well together.

As she left, hard-nosed reporters were commenting on what an impressive person she is and how she just might make that "big difference" we had been talking about.

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