Former Attorney General Janet Reno collapsed during her UR speaking engagement last night, leaving a packed Strong Auditorium shocked and confused.
She was taken to the emergency department of Strong Memorial Hospital, where she remained overnight in satisfactory condition and was released at 9 a.m. She dismissed suggestions that the fainting spell would affect her race for governor of Florida, telling reporters, “I’ve fainted before. George Bush fainted,” according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Doctors told the D&C that Reno had suffered “a simple fainting spell, which we believe was a result of a busy travel day, unusually warm conditions in the University of Rochester auditorium where she was speaking and the fact she had not eaten much that day.”
Reno was about 40 minutes into a speech about public service when she paused and said, “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have to sit down for a minute.”
Reno then looked around for a chair, swayed and fell to the ground. She remained on the floor for approximately 10 minutes. Audience members remained silently seated until they were told to leave, and then burst into quiet applause for the supine Reno.
“I know she sat up while she was on stage,” said Take Five Scholar Mindy Fountain, who is external chair of the Outside Speakers Committee. Fountain was one of the approximately seven people who ran up on stage when Reno collapsed. “She wasn’t passed out. She was awake.”
Reno then walked out the back door of the auditorium and got onto a stretcher. She reached the hospital at 10:05 p.m.
“She is getting the best possible care,” Dean of the College William Green said.
Reno’s talk exhorted students to go into public service, calling the profession “the most rewarding undertaking of my life.” She told stories of people who thanked her years later for helping them collect child support or become drug-free.
As a candidate for governor, Reno has attracted media attention with her down-home campaign style, touring the state in her red pickup truck.
“I want to be governor because I’m concerned about public schools, equal opportunity and ending our culture of violence,” Reno said in a press conference earlier in the evening. “I want to do everything I can to preserve the environment.”
Reno has a tough struggle ahead of her as she fights to keep up with current Gov. Jeb Bush, who currently leads her by about 30 percentage points, according to the New York Times.
“I think many have benefited politically from the president’s popularity,” Reno said in an interview earlier this week. “As time returns to normal, it will be a more level playing field. I will be counting on those citizens of Florida whose votes – had they been counted the way they were intended – would have elected Al Gore as our president.”
Reno, 63, is a native of Florida. While a chemistry major at Cornell University, she visited her uncle Philip Winslow in Rochester for Thanksgiving. Reno went to Harvard Law School, where she was one of 16 women in a class of 544.
She was Florida state attorney for four terms, where she helped reform the juvenile justice system and established the Miami Drug Court. She worked for education reform and equal opportunity during her time in the Clinton administration – a time that was not without controversy.
Far from shying away from her negative baggage, Reno openly talks about her struggle with Parkinson’s disease, her actions in the Elian Gonzalez case and her responsibility in the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
Reno said she didn’t consider her illness when deciding to run for office, except to ask her doctor whether it would affect her ability to govern. He said it wouldn’t.
Reno’s hands do shake significantly. It’s not a tremor, exactly – it looks more like she’s jiggling a baby to sleep. She freely gesticulates, apparently without fear of displaying her condition.
“Some people thought it would be distracting and affect electability,” she said at the press conference. “If people look at me strangely and say, ‘Why is she shaking?’ I explain that it’s not my hand conducting a drunken orchestra – it’s Parkinson’s disease.”
Regarding the 1999 Miami raid that resulted in Gonzalez’s return to Cuba, Reno says, “I stand by those decisions. I thought that boy belonged with his daddy.”
Reno brought up her role on the Waco raid in her speech, citing the need for public servants who are committed to the truth.
“The deaths of those children will be with me all of my life,” she said. “My one comfort is that I prepared and researched as thoroughly as I could. We’ll never know what the right answer would have been.”
Reno says it is important to stand by the president during our time of national crisis, but stresses that people in a democracy have the right to disagree with his actions concerning the war on terrorism.
But Reno refuses to comment on Bush’s specific actions, because she has not been privy to his decision-making. When asked what she specifically disagrees with, she neatly sidestepped the question by replying, “The suggestion that to disagree would somehow be unpatriotic.”
Reno also addressed the need to end wrongful convictions and domestic violence. She is especially passionate about giving kids a good start through education and family relationships.
“If we took the money we spend on prisons and put them into mentoring programs and public schools to give our children a good foundation, we could save so much money down the road,” she said.
Her devotion to equal opportunity seems to stem from her own experiences as a woman in politics and law.
“My professors [at Harvard Law School] were pretty good to me, but the Miami firm I applied to refused to give me a job as a clerk solely because I was a woman,” she said. “There’s nothing like being told you can’t do something because you’re a woman or because you’re black or because you’re someone else.”
Though she addressed a plethora of serious issues, Reno’s speech was far from somber.
“When my time as attorney general was over, a great weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “Then a dark cloud descended. I couldn’t believe I had actually agreed to be on Saturday Night Live.
“I walked onto the set and there was Will Farrell in my blue suit. I delivered my lines flawlessly, but nobody laughed. Then they saw it was me and they laughed. I thought I had a future career as a comic.”
Students showed overwhelming support for Reno, cheering at her entrance and breaking into applause during the talk. Most of them went home without knowing the extent of her injury.
“She was in the middle of a very inspirational speech,” said freshman Anna Czapla, who waved a homemade cardboard cutout of Reno during the speech. “She started getting whiter, and at one point stepped back on her right foot. She went down hard.”
“It was surreal. It was clear that she was going to fall,” senior Dustin Hawks said. “Nobody moved for a solid 35 seconds. She fell really hard – that was the creepiest part.”
Apparently, Reno lives up to the personable image she is trying to foment with the Florida campaign. Fountain, who had dinner with Reno as a representative of OSC, said she discussed some very hard issues with the students.
“I was impressed with her real dedication,” Fountain said. “She tried to get us to ask her questions. She was incredibly approachable and friendly.”
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