Sarah McClendon
(1910-2003)
2004 PRG Courage in Journalism Award

Sarah McClendon was an American original.   She was exactly the kind of journalist the country desperately needs and no one in the Washington political media shows any inclination or ability to take her place.   She was not afraid to approach the issue of extraterrestrial-related phenomena.   She was not afraid of anything.   Below are two excellent obituaries from January of 2003.

Biography and Accomplishments

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 Texas.

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 Texas.

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 of information.

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 problem.

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 State Department.

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 another position.

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 Eisenhower years.

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
WorldNetDaily.com

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 and terrifying!"

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 interest."

"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 more."

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.

 

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