Branch Davidian Questions Await Reno in Waco

By Matt Pyeatt | July 7, 2008 | 8:28pm EDT

( - Florida gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno is expected to discuss one of the most agonizing events of her tenure as U.S. attorney general, in a speech to students and citizens in Waco, Tex., on Thursday.

At a Baylor University president's forum, Reno is expected to reflect on the Branch Davidian standoff and the April 1993 government assault on the compound near Waco.

Reno, advised in April 1993 that the situation inside the compound was deteriorating, ordered federal agents to storm the Branch Davidian complex, which resulted in the flimsy buildings catching fire. More than 80 cult members, many of them children, died in the flames.

At the time, Reno accepted full responsibility for what happened, and years later, she continued to insist that she tried to do the right thing. "In a way, I'll never know what the right thing to do was," she commented last year. "But people have to live with their judgments," she added.

Many people judged Reno harshly for making a decision that had deadly consequences and "police state" overtones.

Political Damage Control?

The Baylor Lariat, the university's student newspaper, reported that Reno has downplayed any connection between her speaking engagement and her current gubernatorial bid in Florida.

Reno told the Lariat that she expects to face questions over the Branch Davidian standoff when she speaks. "I have faced those questions before, and I will answer any question from the audience," Reno said.

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's project on criminal justice, said he believes the people of Waco are tired of having their name associated with the Branch Davidian disaster, and he speculated that Reno's speech is an attempt to gain political credit for confronting the standoff without being forced to account for her actions in the matter.

"I think she knows that the Waco incident is on the minds of a lot of people, and I think what she's trying to do is go back there and try to confront the issue head on," Lynch said. "She wants to be seen as confronting this problem in her background in a head on sort of way."

Lynch also said that he Reno is addressing the student body of Baylor in an attempt to dodge tougher questions on the Branch-Davidian issue.

"The trouble is that she should really be taking questions from reporters about Waco," Lynch said, "not so much from the student-body at Baylor. They were in elementary school at the time so I don't think she will encounter the tough questions that a lot of people want to ask her about her role at Waco."

While many freshmen at Baylor were young children when the federal assault on the Branch-Davidian compound took place, interest among the student body is unusually high.

Ticket seller

Larry Brumley, associate vice-president for Baylor University's external relations, said Reno's speech has sold more tickets than any other event in a series of presentations, including those featuring Desmond Tutu, Steve Forbes and the McLaughlin Group.

"It has provoked a lot of discussion," Brumley said, "Some people are very upset about it."

"We felt like, given the ramifications of her decisions as attorney general, ...the opportunity to have her here in Waco for the citizens of Waco to hear directly from her and even to pose questions to her would be something worthwhile," Brumley said.

Blair Mathews, president of the Baylor University College Republicans chapter, said even though many disagree with Reno politically, students at Baylor "will be interested to hear from her, because there was so much that was involved, so close down here to Waco, obviously, with the Branch Davidian conflict."

Mathews acknowledged that Reno's appearance is likely to generate widely mixed reviews at the private university.

"On one hand it is good to have high-profile speakers that have been heavily involved with government and politics, but she has different views than what Baylor holds," Mathews said.

Controlled Access

University officials said Reno will grant a 15-minute media availability session before her speech and will also allow Baylor students a closed question and answer segment.

After the main speech, Reno will take screened questions from the audience that will be made up of people from the Waco community, Brumley said.

The questions will be submitted in writing and screened by members of the Baylor faculty. This, Brumley said, has been the case for all the speakers who have participated in the president's forum.

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