Sarah McClendon, Veteran Washington Reporter,
Dies at 92
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 8, 2003; 12:23 PM
Sarah McClendon, 92, a reporter covering Washington politics since
the 1940s whose blunt questions made her a loud, unruly and often
refreshing presence at what she considered choreographed press
conferences, died Jan. 8 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in
Washington. She had pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
Ms. McClendon worked mostly from a wheelchair after hip replacement
surgery in 1985 and continued to write and interview for papers in
As one of the few women after World War II writing about politics in
the nation's capital, Ms. McClendon was pitted against
discrimination, condescension and exasperation among politicians and
her peers. It wasn't uncommon for her to be reproved by presidents
who did not want to be bothered with her because of her sex, brusque
manner and the small circulation of the papers for which she wrote.
Describing herself as the "little lady with the loud voice," Ms.
McClendon saw her abrasive style as vital to getting noticed because
her "one-woman news bureau" represented small papers chiefly in
She also believed her pointed approach served a broader, practical
journalistic purpose. In her 1996 memoirs, "Mr. President! Mr.
President! My Fifty Years of Covering the White House," she wrote
that she saw the press' role not strictly as objective transmitters
She wrote it was the media's mandate "to maintain surveillance of
and, if necessary, offer guidance to the person we have temporarily
hired to fill this high office. A President who is secretive, less
than honest, or nonresponsive to the American for whom he works has
forgotten the essential nature of his job."
In the early 1970s, she told President Richard M. Nixon he was
ill-informed about delays in checks for Vietnam War veterans. The
veterans, therefore, were unable to pay for their daily expenses or
education under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Nixon tried to rectify the
In 1982, she successfully pressed President Ronald Reagan for the
release of a then-six-years-in-the-making Justice Department study
of discrimination against women in federal laws. In what one
Washington Post writer dubbed a "one woman verbal ambush," Ms.
McClendon asked Reagan about the report 11 times until he allowed
reporters to view it.
Her missives to chief executives sometimes met with mixed results.
At a 1962 press conference, she asked President John F. Kennedy
whether he knew "two well-known security risks" were working at the
Kennedy defended the men and rebuked her publicly. He also continued
to call on her. "I try not to" recognize her, the president once
said, "but I'm drawn to her."
Sarah Newcomb McClendon was born and raised in Tyler, Tex., the
youngest of nine children. She graduated in the early 1930s from the
University of Missouri journalism school, where she said she was
taught to "crusade for good causes."
She worked at several Texas newspapers before coming to Washington
in the early 1940s. She was a member of the Women's Army Corps and
then became a public affairs officer at the Pentagon.
Her contact with the press corps helped introduce her to reporters
and editors in Washington, including Bascom Timmons. Timmons ran a
news service and asked Ms. McClendon to be a correspondent for the
Philadelphia Daily News. When veterans returned after World War II,
Timmons gave them their old jobs, and Ms. McClendon had to find
In 1946, she started her own business, the McClendon News Service,
and as a single mother often took her young daughter in tow to
conferences and conventions. She developed her trademark style – in
her words, "pushy, sometimes confrontational" – during the
When Eisenhower took office, Ms. McClendon said in her memoirs, a
crush of reporters showed up at press briefings in the Indian Treaty
Room of the Old Executive Office Building. Ms. McClendon was told to
go to the balcony of the room, where she was informed that asking
questions was not prohibited, but not encouraged either.
She felt that gentlemen's agreement disabled her readers from access
to the leader of the free world, rendering him unaccountable to her,
and thus them.
"I shouted down from upstairs, 'Mr. President, are the press
conferences in the future going to follow along this form, or will
reporters be able to ask questions on matters of public interest?' "
Eisenhower decided to change the format.
Often, she asked presidents about obscure matters, for obscure
publications. Ms. McClendon in the mid-1950s reportedly pitched a
question this way to Eisenhower: "Sarah McClendon, of the Little Big
Gulch Bugle: There is talk of putting a new culvert under the
highway between Cactusville and Kicking Horse. What is your thinking
in this matter?"
Although her questions sometimes earned laughs or eye-rolls, others
in the press corps outright disliked her technique. Eric Sevareid of
CBS News in 1974 said she was a "lady who has been known to give
rudeness a bad name at times."
For her part, Ms. McClendon told the Dallas Morning News in 1989
that she needed an angle in an era with so few women Washington
correspondents. Some got by with their looks, she said. Others
belonged to the in-crowd and threw parties to woo sources.
"I decided I had to make a name for myself, and I had to be strong,"
she told the Dallas paper. "I didn't sit down and think of the idea
of asking sharp questions, but it just kind of developed into that."
She said President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the greatest chief
executive she ever knew. Admittedly, she never asked him questions.
She was too shy at the time.
She lived at Bartholomew House assisted living facility in Bethesda.
Her husband, John T. O'Brien, died during World War II.
Survivors include a daughter, Sally Newcomb MacDonald of Washington;
a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.
Remembrance: Sarah McClendon
By Les Kinsolving
Posted: January 11, 2003
She died Tuesday at age 92, in the Washington Veterans
Administration Medical Center where she had been hospitalized since
late last month.
She was the only member of the White House Press Corps still living
who covered President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whom, she told me:
"I was in absolute awe of that man; who was alternately charming –
FDR was the last president of the United States who ever terrorized
Sarah McClendon. She was a veteran of the first training class of
the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II.
When she fell in love and got married, she had to leave the WAACS
and she got a job in Washington as a reporter, since she had begun
writing in 1931 for the Beaumont Enterprise and the Tyler Morning
Telegraph in Texas.
"She was one of the greatest newspaper women Washington ever saw,"
said Helen Thomas who has covered the White House for decades and is
currently a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
"She walked in where angels feared to tread," Thomas said. "She had
guts, she asked the questions that should have been asked, and she
asked questions for people who had no voice. She made the veins
stand out on President Eisenhower's forehead."
President Clinton sometimes seemed amused by McClendon: "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," Clinton said in a statement. "I couldn't help but
admire her spirit."
One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from David
Gergen of U.S. News & World Report. Gergen was a highly placed
consultant for both Democrat and Republican presidents.
At one White House Christmas party for the media, Gergen, who was
then a Reagan counselor, told me:
"You know when we rehearse the president for those press
conferences, we have been able to predict in advance 95 percent of
the questions that were asked. So, we had used them with him at the
rehearsal before they were actually asked at the press conference.
But there were only two reporters we could never predict: Sarah
McClendon and you!"
"Citizen journalist is a mission I took for myself," McClendon wrote
in her 1996 book "Mr. President, Mr. President!" "It offers the best
opportunity to serve one's country, the people and the public
"It has been a privilege to have lived this life," she added. "I
cannot wait to get out of bed each morning and start living it some
She told her story for the McClendon News Service, a bi-weekly
newsletter, which she founded, and a radio commentary which at one
point was carried by 1,200 stations.
What the Associated Press obituary did not report was Sarah's famed
question of President John F. Kennedy as to why he was allowing the
State Department to employ two security risks.
That caused a national furor, but she was discovered to be right.
But that did not deter Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide, Liz
Carpenter, from what Sarah told me was persuading dozens of
newspapers to cancel her column.
I had the unique experience when I was editor and later publisher of
Washington Weekly ("Once-a-week-but-never-weekly") to hire Sarah who
became one of the best gossip columnists I ever read.
Among other things, Sarah caught CBS' Leslie Stahl filching a story
from Judy Woodruff. Sarah also reported that Stahl, on one occasion
when she was in a hurry, rushed into the thin CBS White House booth.
Another CBS reporter, Lem Tucker – a much smaller person – was
typing. Stahl bellowed to Tucker to get up because she had a hot
story. When he did not move with sufficient rapidity, Stahl slammed
into Tucker and knocked him onto the floor.
Sarah also appeared with me on network television's Tom Snyder Show.
Here we told the whole story about John Osborne, once of Time
Magazine, later of the New Republic.
Osborne was one of the meanest bullies I have ever known since I
began covering the White House in 1973. But Sarah told this network
show what she found out he had done. Both of us heard Osborne, at
the next White House news briefing plead with Press Secretary Ron
Nessen to praise his reputation – and then he broke down in tears.
Sarah, who was baptized by my great uncle in Texas, had a superb
sense of humor, along with a temper which was volcanic – and a lust
for news gathering that was so inexhaustible that after she was age
90 she had friends bring her to the press briefings and presidential
press conferences in a wheelchair.
I suppose that I am by no means alone among her colleagues and
employers who had, on occasion, massive disagreements.
But she is one of the most unforgettable people I have ever known –
and in her passing, American journalism has lost a giantess.
I will not pray that Sarah will rest in peace, for peace would be so
thoroughly uncharacteristic of her.
Instead, I will pray that in God's great and loving mercy she goes
from strength to strength in the life of the world to come.