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Reno is a master at evading questions

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2002

The first time I encountered The Glare, I realized Janet Reno was no ordinary interview.

The first time I encountered The Glare, I realized Janet Reno was no ordinary interview.

I had driven to South Florida to ask her about counterterrorism efforts under her eight-year watch as U.S. attorney general. It seemed appropriate after Sept. 11 to ask America's former top law enforcement officer to assess her record on what had become the most important issue in America.

Reno has a defensible terrorism record -- among other things, she dramatically increased counterterrorism spending. She certainly understands the role that federal agencies play in surveillance and gathering intelligence. When I began to ask questions, though, she wouldn't go there. Without being privy to all the classified information about 9-11, she said about six different times, she couldn't possibly discuss her agency's preparedness for terrorism.

"How can I possibly answer that," she asked, with a hostile stare.

Reno is now running for governor as the candidate of "straight talk," the one who "tells it like it is." She announces her listed phone number to crowds of several hundred, for Pete's sake. But here's the thing: Janet Reno is a master at evading questions. She was that way as Dade state attorney, as attorney general, and now as candidate for governor.

Contrary to my first meeting with her (at the time, she was convinced this newspaper was bent on knocking her out of the race), Reno is usually charming. But trying to get an answer from her is often like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

As Dade state attorney, Reno steadfastly refused to discuss pending cases, and she discouraged leaks from her office. As attorney general, she made herself available to regular press briefings but constantly declined comment or offered the vaguest of answers.

"Her weekly news briefing is a fascinating ritual in which she invites reporters to ask her anything they want and then manages to say nothing at all," a New York Times writer marveled in 1997.

Her first stint on the Sunday talk show circuit in 1993 left Sam Donaldson and George Will practically stammering in exasperation.

"No comment" often goes unchallenged in law enforcement. Not so when you're running for governor of America's fourth largest state.

"She could hide under 'pending investigation' as state attorney or attorney general," says Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami. "But now that she's running for a purely political executive position, that evasiveness doesn't play as well."

And yet on the campaign trail, Reno answers questions as guardedly as if she were discussing grand jury investigations.

Is she comfortable with how fairly Florida's death penalty system works? As a state attorney, she sent about 100 people to death row, so she probably has a pretty good sense of the system. Her terse reply: "I have not reviewed all the cases within the system, so I can't answer that."

Does she support state Senate President John McKay's proposal to overhaul Florida's tax structure? She supports reviewing sales tax exemptions to see how many of them make sense, but won't assess the McKay plan that has dominated the debate in Tallahassee lately. Her response: "I haven't read the plan."

Is Reno hoping Bill Clinton will campaign for her in Florida? Her response: Clinton's people are still looking at their schedules and commitments. So then you hope he campaigns for you? Her response: Clinton is still looking at his commitments and schedules. Have you spoken to Clinton about it? She pauses a moment. "I have not spoken to him."

How will Reno pay for all her expensive proposals (higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, more pre-K education, more drug treatment, etc.)? Her response: That depends on what the Legislature does, what the economy does, and what she sees when she examines how effectively Florida spends its money now.

In fairness, Reno's Democratic challengers -- notably Tampa attorney Bill McBride -- have been equally vague about key issues. There isn't a politician alive who won't dodge and obfuscate. But I've seen few who elude questions as masterfully and frequently as Reno does.

It's not that she can't stand the press. Her father was a longtime police reporter for the Miami Herald, and her mother was a feature writer. Her brother is a columnist for Newsday in Long Island.

Reno honed her dodging skills as Dade County's chief prosecutor.

"I didn't have press officers," she told me recently while driving her red pickup. "I took the phone calls from the press. I learned where your questions go, and where I don't want to go."

Some of this clearly is a desire not to be pinned down. But there is also a uniquely Reno aspect to her equivocations. She is fanatical about researching issues, and has little patience for questions that invite sound-bite solutions.

In November, I saw her a few days after the Florida Chamber of Commerce had released a scathing report on the the direction Florida is headed. The report was basically Reno's platform: Without drastic improvements to Florida's education system, the state stands to be left behind in the 21st-century economy.

I asked Reno about the widely publicized report, assuming she'd whack the softball question into the bleachers. She smiled.

"You know I can't comment until I've read it."

Reno expects voters will find that refusal to shoot from the hip a refreshing change from typical politicians.

Just as likely, she will find as Election Day approaches that "straight talk" only goes so far. At some point Floridians will expect straight answers.

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