Health & Fitness

When Janet Reno became the ‘poster child’ for Parkinson’s

Attorney General Janet Reno sits with musicians John Rzeznik, left, and Robby Takac, center, members of The Goo Goo Dolls rock group, at a news conference announcing the "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence" campaign, at New York's MTV Studios, Friday, May 7, 1999. MTV along with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and U.S. Dept. of Education introduced an anti-violence youth action guide and compact disc to be distributed to more than one million young people across the country.
Attorney General Janet Reno sits with musicians John Rzeznik, left, and Robby Takac, center, members of The Goo Goo Dolls rock group, at a news conference announcing the "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence" campaign, at New York's MTV Studios, Friday, May 7, 1999. MTV along with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and U.S. Dept. of Education introduced an anti-violence youth action guide and compact disc to be distributed to more than one million young people across the country. Associated Press File

NOTE: From the archives, this article was first published in the Miami Herald on May 14, 1999. Former Miami-Dade State Attorney and Attorney General Janet Reno died Monday at age 78.

Some people with Parkinson’s disease stuff their hands in their pockets. Others routinely sit on them or clamp them behind their back. Not America’s attorney general.

Three years after her diagnosis, Janet Reno does nothing to hide the tremors that wrack both arms. At a recent event at MTV’s Times Square headquarters, she shuddered so much during a talk on youth violence that both the podium and microphone shook.

“We are living in a culture of violence,” the former Miami-Dade prosecutor said, asking adults to listen to young people — a short speech that won warm applause and kind words.

In trademark style, Janet Reno has gone from Stage 1 to Stage 2 Parkinson’s while in the limelight as America’s top law enforcer. By dealing with it matter-of-factly, by dismissing her tremors as a “phantom wing” — Reno has, perhaps unwittingly, emerged as Parkinson’s “poster child.”

Her experience may also say something about America’s changing attitude toward disabilities.

Listen to Judy McGrath, MTV’s hip black-clad president, who joined with the Justice Department recently to promote a CD-ROM providing young people with advice on how to channel their rage creatively — into poetry, music, and public service:

“I think of the power of her personality and who she is when she gets going — and I kind of forget what she’s doing and how she looks,” said McGrath, 46, whose corporation reaches 265.8 million homes worldwide.

Not that it’s easy to ignore.

“I see it. I feel bad for a minute and I completely forget about it,” she said. When Reno works a crowd, McGrath says, people look her in the eye, not at her hands. “If anything, you respect her even more.”

Why? “She acts like she’s in charge of her own life. So you forget about it. You don’t go to feeling sad. She crackles with life.”

Parkinson’s is a brain disorder that generally comes with age and has no cure. It gradually robs people’s ability to control their movements. It is caused by the absence of a chemical called dopamine, which lets most of us move our limbs smoothly. More than a million Americans have it, among them the evangelist Billy Graham and the actor Michael J. Fox.

Tremors are common

Tremors are a frequent first stage. Then can come what doctors call a mask-like face, meaning people with Parkinson’s do not show typical signs of emotion. If they live long enough, people can lose all motor skills.

So, is a public figure’s disability necessarily a news story? When is a disease a disability? If it is only cosmetic, should journalists be asking questions — and writing articles — about something that is perhaps a private matter?

A Justice Department spokesman recently welcomed a Herald request for permission to interview Reno’s Miami neurologist about how her disease has progressed. Her tremors became more noticeable lately, and seemed to surprise some people.

Yet Reno’s aides say she shows no signs of slowing down and seems untroubled by the disease that could someday leave her permanently bedridden. In a brief interview Thursday, she gave a one-word answer — “no” — when she was asked whether Parkinson’s interfered with her work.

“She has no evidence on examination that she has any problem with judgment, thinking, abstract thinking, etcetera,” said her doctor, Miami neurologist William J. Weiner, 53.

A ‘mild’ case

Weiner described Reno’s condition as “mild Parkinson’s.”

Technically, she is classified as Stage 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most advanced, or bedbound or in a wheelchair. “She has Stage 2 because it’s obvious on both sides of her body,” he said.

So much so that when she sat among reporters, rockers and youth counselors at the MTV studios, her feet flat on the ground, her hands folded in her lap, she shook in her seat while she listened attentively to a teen from Arizona recite rage poetry.

“She doesn’t seem to care. She says outright that she has Parkinson’s. She is to be admired for that. She has nothing to hide,” Weiner said.

The doctor says her disability could disqualify her from certain jobs — like being a brain surgeon or a pilot — but not from directing the 100,000 lawyers and FBI agents, bureaucrats and border guards of the Justice Department.

Sure, he and other Parkinson’s experts say, stress adds to the symptom — accentuates the tremors — but it does not make it progress any faster than in a stress-free environment.

So, her doctor said, if she doesn’t mind the stress of the job making the tremors more noticeable, why should others?

No pattern apparent

Reno, for her part, cannot connect stress and her tremors. “It’s so hard to tell because, some days, when I should be totally stressed out, it doesn’t shake much at all,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it.”

People bring it up in conversation, she said. “Kids don’t stare. They just ask, ‘Why is your hand shaking?’ ”

Reno publicized her condition just weeks after her diagnosis in an unusual fashion — at her Thursday morning news briefing Nov. 16, 1995, announcing it on C-SPAN before she even told President Clinton just blocks away up Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the time, she held up a steady left hand to illustrate that her medication was working. Since then, she has changed doctors, who changed her medication. Reno said she takes two of the three pills her doctor suggested she take daily, but has never suffered any side effects.

Her tremors became especially noticeable last month, when Reno traveled to Littleton, Colo., to sympathize with students, teachers, parents and police left shattered by the Columbine High School shooting. TV showed full body shots, not her usual chest-up angle captured at her more choreographed news briefings and Capitol Hill testimonies.

Even Larry King, the CNN talk show host who typically tiptoes around distasteful questions, felt compelled to tackle it during a recent program on gun control:

King: And how are you feeling by the way?

Reno: I feel good. This hand shakes...

King: That’s the only part of Parkinson’s you have?

Reno: Yes. Alan Simpson would say that’s my phantom wing

King: Is it annoying, by the way or is it — are you used to it?

Reno: I’m used to it, but people notice it. For example, they’ll notice it on television.

King: Yes, you can’t help notice it.

The awkward exchange was a reflection of reporters’, and perhaps the public’s, discomfort with the issue.

Reno’s relationship to her Parkinson’s is a curious one.

Not shy about advocating social causes — such as the MTV promotion on teen violence — she has declined invitations to act as a spokeswoman for the disease.

But experts in the field say she has perhaps done for Parkinson’s what President Clinton’s hearing aid did for the hearing impaired: Not exactly made it sexy, but certainly made it a part of the fabric of ordinary life.

“I think she’s very elegant and I think that after a few moments that’s not the issue anymore,” says Goo Goo Dolls bass guitarist Robby Takac, 34, who could hardly help but notice the attorney general’s body shudder as he sat next to her at the MTV event.

Elegant? Elegant. This from a short rocker with red stringy hair whose band is the rage with teens and the twenty-something set.

“Franklin Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. In that era it was thought that you shouldn’t show disability,” says Dr. Abe Lieberman of the National Parkinson Foundation.

‘A different era’

Today is “a different era. To me, she’s a great example. She’s not sitting in some back room trembling and bemoaning her fate. I have no problem with watching her tremble. I think it’s great. This is America. You overcome your disabilities and do what you do.”

Lieberman says other public figures had been shy to publicize their Parkinson’s, because people associate tremors with senility. In his opinion, from looking at old film footage, Adolf Hitler had Parkinson’s but the Reich rallied around him to hide it.

So “the role that people like Janet Reno have is that they can demonstrate that people with Parkinson’s disease can function at the highest level,” he said.

Reno’s South Florida inner circle is so unconcerned by her condition that they recently debated, briefly, whether to encourage the lifelong Democrat to give up the Justice job to run for the soon-to-be-vacated seat of Sen. Connie Mack, the Florida Republican.

In the end they decided against the recommendation — not because of her illness, but because she seems to love her job too much.

“Janet’s friends are always plotting against her,” cracks Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a longtime Reno associate. “People who see Janet up close and understand how very good she is would really love to see her remain in public office in some way or the other.”

Reno does not discuss her future plans. “I don’t think about it,” she said. “I just want to keep politics out of what I’m doing.”

While others think she could still run for office, perhaps governor of Florida, D’Alemberte sees her at a university or foundation.

“FSU could really use her,” he said. “She’s so thoughtful and really good with students.”

Reno recently attended the university’s graduation. There, she worked a characteristic exhausting schedule, D’Alemberte said, delivering two separate commencement addresses, meeting with smaller groups and eating breakfast with some students.

No one asked about the attorney general’s tremors, he said. But, “I did catch myself watching her on the stage during graduation. At times it seemed to be quite pronounced.”