Last Sunday, Miami Dade College and the Reno family hosted a memorial service for the former Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno. Among the speakers, President Bill Clinton.
There was not a single mention of politics, yet politics hung over the assembled like a December cloud scattering rain outside.
The crowd was filled with greying (mostly) Miami Democrats who wielded great influence across the state in an earlier generation. Senator Bob Graham. Sandy D’Alembert, a close friend of the Reno family. Richard Pettigrew. One couldn't escape the fact that Clinton and his entourage, including John Podesta, his former chief of staff and chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign, belong more to the passing than the current generation inheriting our world.
All memorial services share the joy of remembrance and bittersweet assessments of the living. One passed to the spirit world. The others live just a short time more, including and especially kings, dictators, and presidents. We live to measure our accomplishments on the scale of history; personal, family and experiential.
Ms. Reno's niece, Hunter, emcee'd the service. Three ministers spoke. A rabbi from Temple Judea in Coral Gables. A pastor from Miami’s African American community. And a Catholic activist who has dedicated his life to the struggles of Miami’s immigrant communities. The current Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch. Mr. D’Alembert, a contemporary of Ms. Reno. Ms. Reno’s boss in the federal government, President Bill Clinton. And concluding the service, Janet's sister -- former Martin County commissioner Maggie Hurchalla.
(see 1:54 min for start of President Bill Clinton remarks)
Clinton is a highly accomplished orator. He is extraordinarily successful at connecting with people and diverse audiences. He is also one of the brilliant political minds of his generation; a legend in the skill set of matching voters, demographics and districts. He is also a gourmand of late night small talk and a character both admirable and indescribably capable of self-inflicted wounds.
Bill Clinton appeared in Miami on Sunday with a different speech -- not much of the hopeful and uplifting -- than we are used to.
Speaking of Janet Reno and the Waco disaster, Clinton said, “If you take big responsibilities, and make lots of decisions, you will make mistakes.” In case anyone hadn’t gotten the point, he said it twice, to point the audience in the direction of his own assessment, his own path.
“She was a straight-arrow”, Clinton said in appreciation of the careful, deliberative qualities of his former attorney general. Taken together — his comment about making mistakes along the way and the sense that in so many ways he could not be the straight arrow — there was a clear implication of the burden of an election delivering the least straight-arrow ever to the White House: Donald Trump.
He didn’t mention the campaign or Trump, not once. Only a single, lonely stop: civility in public discourse. The audience shifted in its seats in assent.
The service was about a Miami-Dade original, Janet Reno, who did grow up in that home-built house on the edge of the Everglades. “Every politician wants you to believe they grew up in a one log house built by hand," Clinton joked. "Janet really did."
Bill Clinton started off as a poor boy, too, maybe not in a log cabin, but since leaving the White House he became the kind of rich that F. Scott Fitzgerald noted: the very rich are not like you and me.
No political family has ever been as closely scrutinized — and publicly reviled by opponents and brought low by organized messaging (through Fox News) — as the Clintons. Their haters were nowhere in sight, yesterday. Only a generation of Democratic leadership in Florida that lost control of the state because, one suspects, they didn’t chase the cause of money and wealth as hard the other team.
Oh, there is plenty of wealth on the Democratic side. Bob Graham’s family grew extraordinarily wealthy through development in former Everglades wetlands. Others grew wealthy though the law.
But there was always something holding the Democrats back from the callous, prosperity doctrine of their opponents. It had to do with the core values of Janet Reno: caring for those at the bottom, the less advantaged, providing a level playing field and respecting the dignity of people whether threatened by the gale force of immigration, of racial inequity, or drug abuse.
Bill Clinton stopped on these points, too, but one couldn't escape the sense of regret that the angels of our better natures are past their shelf life. In our current political climate, the Moral Majority and "values voters" -- segments of conservative voters that Bill Clinton appealed to in his strategic "triangulation" to defeat the GOP -- have magically, mysteriously vanished from the scene. Instead, Republicans are scrambling to the heel of Donald Trump, whose only proving ideology is to self-branding exercises.
The smoke and mirrors of all politics have given way at the national level to reveal something ungodly and beastly. We are not all rich as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: we are living in an age increasingly defined by scarcity, not prosperity.
One senses all hell will break loose before the insiders who have now come into the broad sunlight will give up their private jets, petro-wealth, and control of natural resources.
These discrepancies and illusions of modern America did not feature in the work of Janet Reno as as an attorney and public servant but they were central to her life. In opposition to them, she lived simply and practically within her means. And she was a child of the Everglades after all; a place whose mysteries and beauty do hold the angels of our better nature if only we will protect them.