February 5, 2003

Reno '60 Speaks at Forum

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“Every time I think of Cornell, I think that [this place] has given me so much, an education, friendships, understanding. Use this and your life as well as you can, to put that education to work,” said Janet Reno ’60, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor.

Reno, a chemistry major and one of Cornell’s most distinguished alumni, spent an hour and a half of her two weeks at Cornell participating in a student forum on “Ethics of the Modern Campaign,” facilitated and sponsored by Democracy Matters and the Cornell Program for Ethics and Public Life (EPL).

Reno, who served as President Bill Clinton’s attorney general for seven and a half years, also told anecdotes from her long career as a lawyer and politician. She discussed topics ranging from campaign finance reform to the death penalty to welfare.

“I am personally opposed to the death penalty,” she said. “I think the point of the law is to protect human life. The death penalty is about vengeance. Vengeance is not a luxury the government can engage in.”

She explained that the death penalty is inappropriate considering the potential fallibility of the justice system.

“When 123 cases have been identified where DNA exonerated the defendants, we have to start looking at our truth-seeking processes,” she said.

She was equally pointed on her support of affirmative action.

“Why do we wait until college to use affirmative action? Why not start at ages zero to three?” she asked.

After running in the 2002 Florida gubernatorial election, Reno also had much to say on political campaigns and campaign finance. She said that making fundraising phone calls was “one of the most horrible things I’ve ever had to do.”

During that election, Democratic leaders said that Reno could never win because she has Parkinson’s disease and too much baggage, including her controversial decisions during the Waco, Oklahoma City and Elian Gonzalez affairs from her time as attorney general.

“It was an interesting experience because it was not my opponents that were tearing me down, but the Democratic Party,” she said.

Reno ultimately lost the election, but, as she told the audience, “If you pursue a career in public service, don’t be afraid to lose. There is too much to do to be in the dumps about losing.”

The forum itself was mediated by Prof. Michelle Moody-Adams, the director of EPL, Camilla Velasquez ’03, a founding member and the treasurer of the Cornell chapter of Democracy Matters and Peter Mack ’03, Ithaca Common Council member, ward 4.

“I thought the forum went very well due to the graciousness and richness of [Reno’s] experience and a group of students who went to every length imaginable to make this successful,” Moody-Adams said at the end of the event.

Drew Warshaw ’03, the campus director of Democracy Matters, was equally pleased.

“I thought this was a refreshing event. We were able to enter into political discourse without partisanship. That was checked at the door,” he said.

Umair Khan ’03 also appreciated the nonpartisan nature of the event.

“I thought this was an unbiased and balanced approach without the baggage you typically hear. There were no annoying catchphrases,” he said.

While Reno is a Democrat, it is perhaps her attitude toward the current parties that allowed for that sort of unbiased discourse to occur. “The Republicans are saying ‘Trust us’ and the Democrats are saying … sometimes I’m not sure what the Democrats are saying,” she said.

Reno’s immediate plans include exploring truth, justice and perfecting her kayaking maneuvers, namely the Eskimo Roll, in Costa Rica. Reno will be on campus until next Thursday.

Archived article by Freda Ready