Former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno showed her warmhearted side in a speech Thursday, joking about her Parkinson's disease and calling it part of her political baggage, like her decisions at Waco and in the Elian Gonzalez case.
Reno, who recently announced that she will seek the Democratic nomination in the Florida governor's race, made her comments to about 250 people at a luncheon in Garden Grove sponsored by the Dayle McIntosh Center, which serves the disabled community in Orange County.
Reno said the biggest political challenge ahead of her may be her past.
Part of that relates to Gonzalez, the 5-year-old Cuban refugee whose plight fueled intense passions in an international tug of war over the boy's future.
"I believed that Elian belonged with his dad in Cuba, and if that's bad, I'll happily carry it around," Reno said.
She has already taken full responsibility for her decisions in the 1993 assault on the Branch Davidians' compound near Waco, Texas. About 80 people in the compound died in the incident, along with four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"No one will ever know what the right thing to do was," Reno said. "Because that went to the grave with [religious cult leader] David Koresh. . . . The decision will be with me all my life."
Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease about six years ago, but the medical condition has not forced her to give up favorite activities, such as kayaking and hiking.
She got her loudest applause of the day when she showed the audience her trembling hands. "The next baggage," she said, raising her left hand, "is this shaking!"
Her condition makes it difficult to write but could be a blessing if she ever has to conduct an orchestra, "because I can't carry a tune," she said.
Reno was invited to speak before supporters of the McIntosh Center because she is viewed as a role model among those who work with the disabled. She told the audience she thinks Americans need to take an inventory, community by community, of services providing access, advocacy and self-sufficiency to the disabled.
She appeared at the request of one of the center's directors. She accepted in part because she was already in Orange County to speak at a State Bar Assn. dinner in Anaheim.
"The timing couldn't have been better because of her candidacy," said Richard Devylder, executive director of the McIntosh Center. "It was an opportunity to bring her here because she has a disability and is such a big name."
Reno received a standing ovation and was immediately surrounded by people seeking her autograph or to be photographed with her. Among those was Marti Schrank of Fullerton.
"I told her that when she reunited Elian with his father, we sent her a letter," Schrank said. "Well, she sent us a letter back, she's that kind of a person. She smiled at me and said, 'Thank you for everything you're doing.' "
One participant said she is angered that new housing tracts almost never provide access for those in wheelchairs. Reno said she will meet with architects, planners and developers to seek a solution as soon as she returns to Florida.