McClendon, Sarah Newcomb

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McClendon, Sarah Newcomb

(b. 8 July 1910 in Tyler, Texas; d. 8 January 2003 in Washington, D.C.), the longest-serving White House reporter, who covered every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush and was known for her loud, probing questions at news conferences.

McClendon was born in East Texas oil country, the youngest of nine children of Sidney S. McClendon, a merchant, postmaster, and local Democratic Party chairman, and Annie Bonner McClendon, a homemaker, literary club founder, and suffragist. McClendon’s family for the most part was highly educated, with one grandfather who was an associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court. McClendon was raised an Episcopalian but later in life converted to Catholicism. At age fifteen, she began working at a bank as a telephone operator and bookkeeper, a job she kept for two years.

McClendon discovered a love of writing while attending Tyler Junior College, where she would write papers for other students for as little as $1.50 apiece. One of her teachers there told her that she should attend the University of Missouri School of Journalism to become a reporter. She did, working her way through school as a live-in caregiver for two young children and graduating in 1931. She headed to Chicago after graduation with the hope of getting a job at the Chicago Tribune but decided she was too timid and returned to Tyler shortly afterward.

That same year, an editor at a local Tyler newspaper hired McClendon for ten dollars a week to write about the need for a new hospital in town, a crusade that eventually succeeded; she became a reporter for the Tyler Courier Times and Tyler Morning Telegraph. Soon she was also contributing to the International News Service and other Texas newspapers, including those in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, earning an extra $125 to $150 per month. She remained in Tyler for about eight years, covering the oil industry, courts, and general news before she was fired for defying an editor’s orders to refrain from writing about the iron ore industry.

McClendon then moved to Beaumont to work for the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper, covering the shipping industry and other subjects until she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1942. Inspired by the famous World War I spy Mata Hari, she initially hoped to work in intelligence but was told she did not have the proper credentials. McClendon began her army stint as a private, earning $21 a month. After completing training in Des Moines, Iowa, she began to work as a public relations officer, eventually moving to Washington, D.C., to work at the Pentagon as liaison with the War Department Bureau of Public Relations. She later became the first female first lieutenant in the Office of the Army Surgeon General.

McClendon married John Thomas O’Brien, a paper salesman, in 1943, but he abandoned her shortly afterward, when she became pregnant. O’Brien died a few years later. McClendon concealed her pregnancy and continued working until she gave birth to her only daughter in 1944. McClendon was the first army officer to give birth at a military hospital, Walter Reed Army Hospital. She was discharged from the army shortly afterward. Nine days after her daughter’s birth, she went to work in a news bureau for the newsman Bascom Timmons, who assigned her to become Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News. She obtained her first White House press pass that month. Eventually, she became a correspondent for several other Southern newspapers, hiring a succession of caregivers for her daughter.

As men came back from World War II, McClendon was among the Washington press corps women who were displaced. She founded the McClendon News Service in December 1946. Her first clients were five small Texas newspapers, which assigned her to write about military bases and other local concerns. She became active in the American Newswomen’s Club but chafed at the exclusion of women from the National Press Club, where members heard news about plum jobs and were treated to visits from highly placed newsmakers.

In later interviews she described herself as timid while she was covering the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but her hard-charging style emerged while she was covering President Harry S Truman. “Some of the older reporters were the most critical, the ones who had used the former [diplomatic] style. They thought I was abrupt and a newcomer and didn’t know what I was doing, and they thought that I wasn’t working for a big enough paper, and that I should be ignored,” McClendon told an interviewer for the Washington Press Club Foundation. From then on, she did not shy away from any question to which she thought the American people needed an answer—even if it got her into trouble. She blamed President Lyndon Johnson for getting her fired from two newspaper clients for stories he found unfavorable.

The presidential historian Henry Graff once said that McClendon “talked to presidents as if they were servants of the people.” In 1959 she famously asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower what policy decisions then Vice President Richard M. Nixon had participated in making. “I can’t think of any,” he replied. When a later questioner returned to the subject, Eisenhower gave a headline-grabbing response: “Give me a week, and I’ll think of something.” McClendon earned criticism for asking President John F. Kennedy why he was naming two people considered to be possible security risks to reorganize the innermost office of the U.S. State Department. Kennedy was critical of the question but continued calling on her at news conferences. In her 1996 memoir, she wrote that Kennedy was her favorite president. While he had “a mixed record in international politics and a hardly impressive list of legislative accomplishments, [he had] a profound effect on Americans of many ages—many in my generation adored him. I was among them.”

By 1969 McClendon’s news service expanded to a radio show, which eventually reached twelve hundred stations. She also launched a nationally syndicated column and newsletter. During one press conference with President Nixon, McClendon asked about the failure of the Veterans Administration to deliver GI Bill checks to some Vietnam veterans to pay for college expenses. Nixon investigated the problem and fixed it. Thanks in part to her near-constant protests, the National Press Club opened its doors to female journalists in 1971. In 1982, she repeatedly asked President Ronald Reagan about a Justice Department report on discrimination against women in federal laws, and her questions prodded him to release the report to public scrutiny.

Throughout her career, McClendon continued to be regarded with a mixture of derision and respect. The newsman Eric Sevaried once said that she could “give rudeness a bad name.” President Bill Clinton said in a statement after her death: “All of us who called on her in news conferences did so with a mixture of respect and fear, I suspect, because we would never quite know what she might say.” In 1994 the Senate majority and minority leaders and her colleagues celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her admission to the press galleries.

In her memoir, McClendon wrote: “Citizen journalist is a mission I took for myself. It offers the best opportunity to serve one’s country, the people and the public interest.” She broke ground for women in journalism, but perhaps her strongest legacy was remaining a fiercely independent advocate of common people amid the rise of pack journalism in Washington. The Sacramento Bee paid tribute in a 2003 editorial: “If today’s White House press corps is more polished and respectful, it may also be a bit too timid about reminding the mighty whom they work for. Sarah McClendon... was on the right track, even if she made a few ruts along the way.” McClendon died of pneumonia and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

McClendon wrote two memoirs, My Eight Presidents (1977) and Mr. President, Mr. President! My Fifty Years of Covering the White House (1996). Obituaries are in the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post (all 9 Jan. 2003), and in the Sacramento Bee (11 Jan. 2003). McClendon granted interviews in 1989 and 1990 to the Washington Press Club Foundation oral history project.

Leigh Dyer

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McClendon, Sarah Newcomb

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