Ferrell and Reno on the SNL set: She's comedy material for him but a headache for Alex Penelas
Courtesy Saturday Night Live

Devil in a Blue Dress

Nobody was happier to hear that Janet Reno was considering a run for governor than Will Ferrell, the Saturday Night Live cast member who parodies Reno on the show. "My first reaction was that this couldn't be greater news," he told me last week. "The Dance Party will live now."

Ferrell is perhaps the best-known member of the current SNL cast. His impersonation of George W. Bush is one of the mainstays of the show. During last year's presidential campaign, his debate sketches with Darrell Hammond, who played Al Gore, helped set the tone for the public's perception of our new president ("Strategery!" and "Ahhh, presidenting is hard").

In addition to Bush, Ferrell regularly impersonates folks such as Alex Trebek and Harry Caray. His other characters include Craig the "Spartan Spirit" cheerleader, singing middle-school teacher Marty Culp, and Dog Show cohost David Larry.

His Reno impersonation, however, has always been special. In Ferrell's version she is a dashing figure, someone who fights crime by day yet still has time to host a rockin' dance party for teenagers at night in her basement. And though she may be a bruising, sexually ambiguous hulk of a woman capable of thrashing evildoers with her bare hands, she also is sensitive enough to relate to the kids and vulnerable enough to want nothing more than to be held tight by her good friend and fellow cabinet member Donna Shalala during the slow songs.

Not surprisingly Ferrell always wondered if Reno ever took offense at his impersonation. Earlier this year he received his answer when a member of the attorney general's staff called the show in January and let it be known that Reno was interested in appearing on SNL. "We were like, “Really? Okay!'" recalls Ferrell.

Until that call Ferrell thought he had put away his blue dress and pearl necklace forever. "We were into a new administration," he says. "I thought we were done with Janet Reno's Dance Party." Immediately following Bush's swearing-in ceremony, however, Reno flew to New York to make the surprise appearance. "To her credit it was all her idea," Ferrell says.

Nonetheless Ferrell was nervous.

"I had heard through unconfirmed sources and hearsay that she thought my impersonation was funny, so I kind of heard that going into it," he says. "But you don't know until you're face to face with the person. And this is the first time I'd ever met the person I had portrayed."

Ferrell began impersonating Reno four years ago and gives part of the credit to his wife. "She said, “Janet Reno is tall. Why don't you play her?'" Ferrell recounts. The idea appealed to him. "You'll always have people impersonating the president and our main leaders," he says, "but I'm a fan of stepping outside of that and depicting someone you would never get otherwise, because there was really no reason for anyone to portray Janet Reno."

In the past four years he estimates he's played her nearly twenty times. "It's not one of the top three characters that people ask about, but a surprising number of people do mention it," he says, adding some find it vicious and mean-spirited. "I disagree," he responds. "We always kind of handled her more like a fictional character than really herself. I think the persona of the person in that sketch is always very tough and kind of like a superhero, breaking through walls and that sort of thing.

"And so when she came on the show I tried to explain to her that this was always more of an homage to her than making fun of her. I told her: “Hey, we thought of you as a superhero.' And she kind of went, “Ahhh shucks.' She was very modest."

Reno's appearance -- in which she broke through a wall, declaring, "It's Reno time!" -- was the highlight of the show. "She was amazing, and the audience really treated her like a rock star," he says. "It made her look great, I think."

Ferrell realizes that nationwide more people probably know Reno through his impersonations than through her actions as attorney general. "It is a little odd," he notes. "But it was odd this year when we found out people were formulating their opinions about presidential candidates by watching our debate sketches. Media and politics and entertainment are kind of at a weird time when they all seem to be blurring together. Politicians have just become more savvy about using these tools to their advantage."

SNL may not be the only television show that could affect the public's perception of Reno. Although she has yet to declare herself a candidate, she's already outlined the broad themes of her campaign: protecting the environment, limiting urban sprawl, and spending more money on issues relating to children and the elderly. She's an old-fashioned liberal with law-and-order credentials. In the parlance of the current Zeitgeist, she's a West Wing Democrat.

As Washington-based pollster Rob Schroth told me recently, The West Wing has afforded liberal elements within the Democratic Party the most positive light they've seen in years. (The season finale of The West Wing drew nearly 21 million viewers.) But perhaps even more relevant for Reno is the fact that the show's central character, the highly popular President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen), manages the daily responsibilities of being commander in chief while suffering from multiple sclerosis. And so at a time when the line between entertainment and politics often is indistinguishable, the ability of the fictional President Bartlet to lead the free world while suffering from MS certainly must mean that a real-life Janet Reno could be governor while suffering from Parkinson's disease.

If Reno does run, she can count on Ferrell's support. Knowing how daunting political campaigns can be, Ferrell offers that he'd be willing to fill in for Reno -- as Reno, of course -- at any campaign stops she might overbook around Florida. "I could do that," he laughs.

Any predictions on how a race between Reno and Jeb Bush might go? "I think Janet will probably back over him with her pickup truck," he says. Striking a more serious tone for a moment, the registered Democrat adds, "When I had a chance to talk to her, I became that much more impressed with her, and I think if she decides to run she'll provide a great option for the voters of Florida."

And a great source of material for him, as well. "I've got a whole campaign to watch," he says. "Janet Reno running against the brother of the president. I'm guessing that is going to be a comedically charged election."

If the prospect of Janet Reno running for governor makes Will Ferrell gleeful, that same prospect must make Alex Penelas woeful. No one is a bigger loser if Reno runs than our sexy little mayor.

A Reno candidacy will guarantee that the controversy over Elian Gonzalez remains an active issue for the next eighteen months. Not only will Reno's handling of the affair be repeatedly scrutinized but all the events surrounding that tumultuous period will be replayed, including Penelas's defiant March 29, 2000, speech in front of the federal courthouse, during which he foolishly declared war on the federal government. "If their continued provocation in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States," Penelas shouted to the world.

That sound bite will be played again and again. But even more embarrassing for Penelas, we also will see scenes from a Nightline town-hall meeting, held nine days later, during which host Ted Koppel offered Penelas the opportunity to repeat his claims while Reno listened and watched via satellite hookup.

"Mayor Penelas," Koppel began, looking down from the stage on the mayor, who was sitting in the front row of the audience, "you got -- you got a lot of flack and a lot of publicity for what you said a couple of weeks ago. You still stand on it? In other words do you want to say to the attorney general to her face, electronically speaking, what you said -- what you said when she was not present, namely if there was violence it would be on her head and on the president's head?"

As Koppel spoke Penelas shrunk into his seat, and when he finally responded his answer was so long and convoluted that Koppel finally cut him off. "Mr. Mayor," Koppel said, "I've allowed you to go on for a long time here in the hope that you would ultimately answer my question, but you haven't yet. Would you like to say to the attorney general's face what you said behind her back?"

Penelas never did. (And I never tire of watching that humiliating exchange.)

The mayor undoubtedly hopes the entire episode will fade from memory so he can rebuild what's left of his shattered dreams. But that won't happen if Reno runs. The Elian affair, though, isn't Penelas's only problem. He also must deal with the resentment festering among Democrats over his abandonment of Al Gore last fall. Penelas refused to campaign for the vice president in the final months of the 2000 election, believing it would hurt his standing among Cuban Americans to be associated with anyone from the Clinton administration.

Penelas's absence angered many Democrats. That ire was magnified by the closeness of the presidential race in Florida and the belief that had Penelas helped Gore, the Democrats would now be in the White House. The 2002 governor's race would offer Penelas a chance to make amends with Democrats by playing a major role in helping the party's candidate defeat Jeb Bush. But if Reno is the nominee, Penelas will once again go into hiding.

He won't campaign for her. He won't even endorse her for fear of incurring the wrath of Cuban Americans. Whatever hope Penelas has of reviving his political standing within the party will be crushed.

Anyone thinking Penelas might use Reno's candidacy as an excuse to switch parties would be mistaken. The Republicans don't want him. Jeb Bush can't stand him, especially after the mayor upstaged the governor last year during the debate over Bush's One Florida initiative. Besides, as a Republican, Penelas would be just one among many Cuban Americans.

Win or lose, if Janet Reno does run for governor, she'll have the last laugh at Alex Penelas. And as we all know from watching Saturday Night Live, she's a woman who enjoys a good laugh.


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