Book excerpt: Dreams in the New Century by Gary MorminoInstant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida's Turning Point

Excerpted from "Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point" by Gary R. Mormino. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2022. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Had there been a prize for the most authentic Floridian, Janet Reno was a lock. The daughter of two competing Miami newspaper reporters, she was born and raised in today’s Kendall on the edge of the Everglades, in an un-air-conditioned home. Lucy Morgan, a longtime friend and observer described Reno: “She stood 6-foot-2 in her bare feet -- and they were often bare when she made it home to the rough-hewn home her mother built.” Mother, Jane Wood Reno, dug the foundation, wired the walls, shingled the roof, and laid the bricks in neat rows. The Reno family rule was simple enough: “Tell the truth and don’t cheat.” Janet always followed the rules. Following Harvard Law School, she became state attorney for Dade County and U.S. attorney general. Wholly lacking glamour, she displayed a sense of humor, appearing on Saturday Night Live in 2001 as the host and rock star of the “Janet Reno Dance Party.” 

When she entered the 2002 race to become the Democratic nominee for governor, a British reporter observed, “If former US attorney general Janet Reno can pull off a stunt as disco queen, then maybe she has a chance of becoming Florida’s first female governor.” Her biographer described her retro appeal: “Outspoken, outrageous, absolutely indifferent to others’ opinions, Janet Reno was truly one of a kind.” Consider the reaction of most candidates when citizens ask how they might contact them? Reno handed voters her home phone number! Characteristically, she drove a red 1999 Ford Ranger pickup truck across the state, hoping President Clinton might campaign for her. Instead, Martin Sheen, the actor who played popular President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on The West Wing, headlined a fundraiser. So did Rosie O’Donnell. Reno lost to Tampa lawyer Bill McBride in the Democratic primary by fewer than 5,000 votes. Not even an Elton John fundraiser could deflect rumors that she was battling Parkinson’s disease. In November 2016, former President Clinton eulogized his attorney general, remarking, “I don’t believe Janet Reno ever cut a corner in her life.” Her efforts in the Elián saga were scarcely mentioned that day. A few days after the funeral, Janet’s sister Maggy Hurchalla answered the telephone at the Reno homestead in Kendall. “This is the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.,” the caller said, explaining that they had a message for the family of Janet Reno. The message read: “The family of Elián González would like to convey their love and gratitude for sending their boy home.”

Soothsayers divine the future in search of signs and auguries. In 2000, the portents signaled optimism. But as baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Karl Marx, referencing Emperor Napoleon and his star-crossed nephew Louis Napoleon III, said famously, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” If Marx were born a century later, the eighty-one-year-old Jewish retiree in Century Village might well have said, “History repeats itself, first as farce and then as tragedy.”

When Americans heard about the deadly USS Cole bombing in October 2000, the terrorist act seemed an aberration. Two suicide attackers aboard a small craft detonated explosives that rocked the guided-missile destroyer off the Yemeni port of Aden. The blast killed seventeen American sailors. A search for the mastermind, Jamal-al-Badawi, was launched. He was part of an organization few Americans recognized: al-Qaeda. Badawi belonged to a terrorist cell headed by an elusive figure, Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his operatives fled their compound and sought refuge in the Afghan mountains, fearing American reprisals. Neither outgoing President Clinton nor the new Bush administration retaliated. On 10 September 2001, former President Bill Clinton was speaking to a group of Australian businessmen. The subject of Osama bin Laden came up. “He’s a very smart guy,” Clinton said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once.” Intelligence confirmed that bin Laden was staying in a small town in Afghanistan. “I could have killed him,” said Clinton, “but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”

Author Gary Mormino is scheduled to speak at the St Petersburg Museum of History as part of its Happy Hour with the Historian series from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, and at The Tampa History Center from 6:30 p.m-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23. Both events are co-hosted by  Florida Humanities.
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