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The last place in the world you might expect to find former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is at the Grammy Awards. Yet there she was last winter, positively glamorous in a sleek black ball skirt and white wrap blouse, strolling the red carpet with the likes of Beyoncé and Green Day. She was there to promote “Song of America,” a forthcoming musical history project she's coproducing with Grammy-winning folk producer David Macias.
Anyone who expected Parkinson's disease to slow down the indomitable Reno doesn't know her very well. Today, five years after the end of her tenure as U.S. Attorney General and three years after her unsuccessful bid to challenge Jeb Bush for the governorship of Florida, Reno can be found traveling all over the country to speak on public service, civil rights, education and other issues she's passionate about. (She can also occasionally be found paddling an ocean kayak.)
Judging by all she's done and all she continues to do at the age of 67, you'd never guess it's been fully a decade since her diagnosis.
Reno was 57 years old, and just two years into her term as the nation's first female Attorney General, when she first realized something might be wrong with her left hand. “It was March of 1995,” she recalls. “I noticed a tremor in my early-morning walks around the Capitol. At first it was just a faint twitch, but it got progressively worse, and so I went to the doctor. He asked me some questions, examined me, and told me that I had Parkinson's and that I'd be fine for 20 years. Then he started talking to me about violence issues related to the criminal justice system!”
That blunt, matter-of-fact approach suited Reno, who took a characteristically hands-on attitude toward learning about her disease after her November 1995 diagnosis. “I went to the bookstore and got as many books as I could find,” she says. “I read, and then after talking with my family and friends, I told my doctor that I wanted to make a full statement about it and have him available to answer questions.”
Before she could tell the public, though, she had to tell her boss: a guy by the name of Bill Clinton. “I made sure that I told the President and everyone else that they should be honest with me if they thought I wasn't able to serve. He was very supportive. Then I just moved ahead. I made a decision to continue doing my job.”
Through her remaining five years as the longest-serving Attorney General since 1829, Reno made few concessions to her Parkinson's while continuing to run the world's largest law office. And today, as a (more or less) private citizen, that's still the case.
She isn't one to dwell on how much the disease limits her now, or how much it might in the future. So far, she says, she's been lucky: the symptoms have remained mostly confined to her left hand. While she was heading the Justice Department, her tremors were often visible as she conducted press conferences. The tremors have worsened over the years, though, and that left hand shakes violently sometimes, so that writing with it is difficult. How does she deal with that? “I just ignore it. I move more slowly, but I just give myself time.”
So far, Parkinson's hasn't interfered with her public schedule. And she takes a similar, straightforward tack in dealing with the emotional side of Parkinson's: the fears and anxiety of having a progressive neurological disorder. When darker thoughts hit, “I wiggle and relax myself, and then take a deep breath and move ahead.”
Other people with Parkinson's often come up to Reno at her appearances, asking how she copes with things. She's realistic, acknowledging that her experiences will likely be different from the next person's. “The disease affects everybody differently, and you can't generalize from one person's experience to someone else's,” she says. “But for everyone, I think it's important to keep a positive attitude and keep exercising as much as possible. Be as active as you can be: there's no reason you should necessarily quit work, for example. I think the more you can remain involved, and the more you can be active mentally and physically, the better you can respond to this disease.”
Physical activity has been one of the most important coping strategies for the energetic Reno. “Walking, bicycle riding, cleaning house, working in the woods around my house, swimming, kayaking — I do all of these things,” she says. Not everyone with Parkinson's can paddle a kayak, of course, but the principle of regular exercise is far more important than how impressive an activity sounds on a list of hobbies. “Walking and swimming are two of the best exercises out there for people with Parkinson's. Your doctor can be very helpful in suggesting the best exercises for you. The important thing is not to overdo, and do everything in a balanced way.”
She also advises other people with Parkinson's disease to find a neurologist and associated treatment team with whom they can establish a strong, cooperative, trusting relationship. “My doctors have been so important to me, not just in treating the disease but in providing encouragement and advice,” she says. “They've been as candid as they could be. When I decided to run for governor, I checked with them first to make sure that they thought I could successfully manage the job. They were in accord that I could, based on my response to the disease thus far. It was very encouraging to me to know that the doctors who knew most about the disease thought I could do it.”
Although she didn't win the Florida gubernatorial race, losing the 2002 Democratic primary in her bid to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush, Reno is still working to influence public policy. A member of the board of the Innocence Project, she's now working with that organization and the American Judicature Society on efforts to prevent the wrongful conviction of innocent citizens. “Post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated 159 people to date,” she says, “and we're working to develop an institute that will study what reforms are necessary to help us learn from those cases and adopt procedures that will prevent the wrong person from being prosecuted and convicted.”
Although she spends much more time thinking about her work than about her Parkinson's, Reno acknowledges that she's watching intently as the public debate on embryonic stem cell research moves forward. “I'm very concerned that lack of funding for this research may be holding back progress on treatments for Parkinson's and many other diseases,” she says. “But I'm also hopeful, based on the discussions that have come out of the congressional deliberations on stem cell legislation, that people will have a better idea of what's involved and how important it is, and that we as a nation might participate in one of the most exciting medical developments I know of.”
Also at the top of her agenda: that musical history project that took her to the Grammys. “My niece's husband is a songwriter and producer,” she says, explaining her entrée to the music world. “He was playing for me one night, and I said, ‘Ed, why don't you develop a musical collection that teaches the history of America in song?’ The very next day he lined me up with David Macias, and I'm very excited about getting people involved in this project. There are so many young people who find great relevance in music and enjoy it so much. I think it can open doors, and encourage them to read more and understand our history in a better perspective.”
At those 2005 Grammys, Macias took home the award for best traditional folk album. Who knows? Don't be surprised if you see the indomitable Janet Reno at the Grammys again — next time, as a nominee.
For more information about Parkinson's, see RESOURCE CENTRAL on page 46.
‘The doctor told me I had Parkinson's and would be fine for 20 years. Then he started talking to me about the criminal justice system!’