Sarah McClendon, 92; Brash Journalist Berated Presidents

Times Staff Writer

Sarah McClendon, who said she was too shy to ask questions of Franklin D. Roosevelt but was an irritant to every president since, died Tuesday at the age of 92, still accredited to cover the White House.

McClendon died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She was admitted just before Christmas in deteriorating health.

With her flaming red hair and her scratchy voice, McClendon embarrassed many in official Washington, reporters as well as presidents, by asking pesky and often unwelcome questions about veterans benefits or women's rights or presidential priorities.

"She's been known to give rudeness a bad name," CBS newsman Eric Sevareid once observed.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the president perhaps most riled by her raspy persistence, once commented, "I can run the country or take questions from Sarah McClendon, but not both." And whenever McClendon berated a president at a televised press conference, White House phone lines buzzed with complaints from viewers who found her style disrespectful of the presidency.

But the Texas-born journalist, whose father was a Democratic county committee chairman and whose mother was a suffragette, never apologized for either her brash methods or her populist fondness for conspiracy theories.

"You don't get anything by sitting down," she once told an interviewer. She once startled Diane Rehm of National Public Radio by asserting that White House counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide, had actually been killed by the government. On another occasion she mused, "If we keep on asking questions maybe, just maybe, we will be able to find out why there is poverty ... and why we now are on the verge of world war."

Representing a string of small newspapers amid the mega-media muscle of Washington journalism, McClendon knew she had to make noise to be noticed. "I was taught to be deferential to my elders and not to talk when they were talking," she told an interviewer for the Washington Press Club Foundation's oral history project. "But I found out that with too much competition, I had no chance if I didn't do that, didn't become loud. It wasn't that I particularly preferred to be loud, it's that I had to be competitive. I had to do something."

Presidential historian Henry Graff said McClendon would be remembered for her willingness to shout at presidents. "She proved that we are all firsts among equals, that you can talk to presidents just the way you talk to your spouse," he said. "She talked to presidents as if they were servants of the people."

Former President Clinton noted Wednesday, "She didn't just ask questions, she demanded answers -- answers to questions that may not have dominated conversations inside the proverbial Beltway, but were very much on the minds of American families."

McClendon was born in Tyler, Texas, the youngest of nine children, on July 8, 1910. Her father had a stationery business and sold pianos, and her mother took her to rallies where women pressed for the right to vote. She always figured she would become a lawyer; there were several in the family, including a grandfather who was a judge on the Texas Supreme Court. But her mother passed on a love of writing, and a teacher at Tyler Community College encouraged her to attend journalism school at the University of Missouri.

She did. After graduation, she returned home and worked for the Tyler Courier Times and the Tyler Morning Telegraph, grabbing any assignment she could. She never fancied herself a writer and hoped to make her mark as a reporter. She moved to the Beaumont Enterprise in Texas in 1939, and worked there a few years before signing up for the Army with the onset of World War II. She enlisted in the Women's Army Corps, asking to be assigned to intelligence. Instead, she was assigned to public relations in Washington.

She eventually married and had a daughter, Sally Newcomb MacDonald, now an accomplished linguist. Her husband soon left her for a former girlfriend, and she left the WACS to return to journalism. When Sally was 9 days old, Sarah McClendon went to her first presidential press conference, with Roosevelt.

She was accredited first as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News, but was let go when the war ended and male reporters came home to reclaim their jobs. She then launched the McClendon News Service, a Washington bureau for newspapers too small to have one, and she made her way as a single mother at a time when combining motherhood and work outside the home was unusual. Once, desperate for someone to care for her daughter while she covered a story, she called the Red Cross, she said in the interview with the Washington Press Foundation, adding that the organization provided a nanny for a week, no charge.

Her history of berating presidents began with Harry S. Truman, but reached general notice with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first president to allow televised press conferences, although they were not broadcast live. Famously, she once asked Ike what policy decisions his vice president, Richard Nixon, had played a role in. Eisenhower made headlines when he said, "Give me a week and I'll think of some."

John F. Kennedy once berated her for using a question unfairly to smear two State Department employees as "security risks." Johnson was so riled by her questions that he tried to get several Texas newspapers to drop her service. But Nixon shook up the Veterans Administration after fielding some irritating questions from McClendon about why veterans were not getting their GI Bill education benefit checks.

As televised presidential news conferences gained larger audiences, presidents learned to call on McClendon to deflect difficult topics. They knew they could count on her to change the tone and content of the conversation.

"It was kind of a double-edged relationship," recalled Marlin Fitzwater, who served as press secretary to both President Reagan and the first President Bush. "A president could call on her at a briefing and expect to get a question on an unrelated subject. It tended to give you a moment of relief, but then you had to spend three days researching the answer."

In later years, confined to a wheelchair, suffering from severe arthritis, she still showed up at news conferences and still professed not to care what others thought.

"Sarah deserves more in history than being remembered as a nonconformist," Fitzwater said. "The fact is that she was a serious person. I don't think she ever demanded attention just for the sake of attention. She was beating the pavement."

Helen Thomas, the veteran correspondent who herself pioneered many "firsts" for women journalists, said McClendon "provided a sanctuary for a lot of people who felt disenfranchised. They came to her with causes -- 'Please tell the president this' -- and she took up causes. She was a great crusader."

Author of two books, "My Eight Presidents," and "Mr. President, Mr. President!", she is survived by her daughter, a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.

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