A native of Tyler, Texas and the youngest of nine children, Sarah McClendon was born on July 8, 1910. In time, her life’s experiences would carry her far beyond the East Texas Piney Woods of her childhood and offer Sarah opportunities in the world of journalism and politics few of her female contemporaries could even imagine.
A graduate of Tyler Junior College in 1928 and then the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism in 1931, McClendon stated she was trained to "crusade for good causes." Beginning her journalism career with the Tyler Courier-Times after graduation, Sarah was on staff with the Tyler Morning Telegraph during the time she covered the explosion of the New London Schoolhouse. As a reporter with the Beaumont Enterprise, McClendon published a series of critical articles about the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – an organization in which she joined a short time later.
After the United States entered World War II, McClendon joined the WAAC in September 1942. She began by serving in the public relations department, then enrolled in Officer Candidate School. Upon graduation, she was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and assigned to be the public relations officer for the Army Surgeon General’s office at the Pentagon. Her original desire was to be part of military intelligence, but she did not have the necessary academic qualifications.
While in service, McClendon met paper salesman John Thomas O’Brien. They were married for a brief period of time, during which Sarah became pregnant with their daughter, Sally. O’Brien deserted his pregnant wife prior to the birth and later died during World War II. Describing O’Brien as an alcoholic, she said he “had little to recommend him but my own loneliness.”
June 1944 was a busy month for Sarah. She began by giving birth that month at Walter Reed Army Hospital. By doing so, Sarah McClendon became the first Army officer to give birth in a military hospital. A few days after Sally was born, Sarah was honorably discharged from the Army. Now a single mother with a child to support, Sarah used her contacts in Washington, D.C. to obtain a job as a Washington correspondent and began working before the month was over.
Sarah’s first boss was Bascom N. Timmons, a well-connected newspaperman, who hired Sarah to be a Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News. She worked for him for two years; then was discharged to make room for a male reporter returning to his job following World War II. The experience Sarah gained while working for Timmons would help her make a name for herself in the world of journalism.
Following World War II, only a handful of women were able to find their niche writing about politics in Washington, D.C. Forced to deal with annoyance, arrogance and intolerance among her male peers and from numerous politicians; Sarah was reproved by several presidents on numerous occasions during news conferences. These individuals had no desire to deal with her gruff manner due to her gender and the fact her publication had a small circulation.
Describing herself as the "little lady with the loud voice," McClendon used her “abrasive” style as a means to be noticed so her "one-woman news bureau" could offer readers current information about activities in Washington. Though a small fish in what was then a male-dominated field during the Roosevelt (FDR) administration; by the end of her career, Sarah McClendon had become a well-respected journalist with her own company, the McClendon News Service. Through her service, she provided dispatches and columns from/about Washington to a number of newspapers and subscribers; mostly small publication whose chief circulation was in Texas. Sarah became a model for women who sought to build careers in the press; in addition to being a vocal advocate for a number causes, specifically those which involved veterans of the United States military.
When asked her opinion of FDR, McClendon said, "I was in absolute awe of that man; who was alternately charming – and terrifying!" Though she never asked him any questions, due to the fact she was too shy at the time, he would be the only President of the United States who ever terrified her.
In the decades which followed, McClendon became a regular face at White House press conferences and a Washington institution; well known for her sharp questions. By the end of her career, McClendon was the longest-standing White House-based reporter.
Starting out, she quickly became known for the blunt questions she would ask; in a manner which many considered to be loud and unruly. Others, however, considered her to be a refreshing presence during the “choreographed” press conferences.
In 1946, Sarah honed what she referred to as her trademark style – “pushy, sometimes confrontational.” At the beginning of his administration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower held his press briefings in the Indian Treaty Room, located in the Old Executive Office Building. Here McClendon was relegated to the balcony and informed of the fact though questions from the balcony were not prohibited, they were also not encouraged.
During one press conference, McClendon shouted out to Eisenhower, “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?” Following that outburst, Eisenhower changed the format. On a different occasion, she shot a question to him regarding a rather obscure matter: "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?"
Questioning President John F. Kennedy during a 1962 press conference, Sarah asked whether he knew about the “two well-known security risks” which were working at the State Department. Kennedy rebuked her publicly in the process of defending the men; however, he also continued to call on her. "I try not to" recognize her, "but I'm drawn to her." McClendon’s question caused a national furor to erupt; but she was discovered to be right. Never-the-less, Liz Carpenter, aide to then Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, remained persistent in her efforts to have dozens of newspapers cancel Sarah’s column.
In December of the following year, less than a month after President Kennedy was assassinated, McClendon stated in one of her columns, “My woman’s intuition tells me that Lee Harvey Oswald could not and did not do that by himself. He was just a diversion. It could have been the work of the underworld, using Oswald, with his peculiar background, as a smoke screen; or it could have been a national or international plot.”
She would later refer to John F. Kennedy as her favorite president. Despite "a mixed record, [he had] a profound effect on Americans of many ages ... many in my generation adored him. I was among them."
During the early 1970s, McClendon informed President Richard M. Nixon of his lack of information regarding delays in the cheques being sent to Vietnam War veterans. Due to the delays, the veterans could not pay for either their daily expenses or their education under the G.I. Bill of Rights. After Sarah informed him of the situation, Nixon went to work to rectify the problem.
There were times when McClendon’s questions would earn eye-rolls or laughs. There were other times, however, when the press corps absolutely disliked her technique. In 1974, Eric Sevareid of CBS News referred to McClendon as "a lady who has been known to give rudeness a bad name at times."
With respect to Ronald Reagan, McClendon confronted him in 1982 in an effort to release a discrimination study from the Justice Department which was six-years-in-the-making. The subject of this study dealt with federal laws which discriminated against women. In the process, a writer for the Washington Post described McClendon as a “one woman verbal ambush.” She posed her requests to Reagan on 11 different occasions before reporters were allowed to view the study results.
On numerous occasions, McClendon seemed to amuse President Clinton. He was quoted as saying, "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. I couldn't help but admire her spirit." Later he stated, "Time never diminished Sarah's feisty spirit or her quest for the facts. She didn't just ask questions; she demanded answers."
Sarah was never afraid to offer what she considered to be valuable advice to numerous presidents. To Dwight D. Eisenhower, she said, "Leave off some of your golf and go out and visit some of the small cities." [There are those today who would probably appreciate having her around to say that to the current chief executive as well.] She told Richard Nixon: "Maybe the people you appointed to office aren't giving you the right information," and to George H. W. Bush: "Sir, we have majority rule in this country, and you seem to be afraid of it." [Another statement which could/should also be directed to the current chief executive.]
In retaliation, various presidents would fire back at her as well. In the case of Eisenhower, he asked her, "Do you get fired every week and go to work for a different paper?"
Lyndon B. Johnson stated: "I can run the country or take questions from Sarah McClendon, but not both." Despite the fact she angered LBJ so much that, as president, he had her fired as Washington correspondent for some of her papers, she still considered him a friend. She wrote in her 1996 autobiography, “Mr. President, Mr. President!”, "Though Texans, in our ornery way, sometimes play by cut-throat rules, we do stick together."
Bush Sr. told her, "I'm not going to take questions from you if you act like that. I just want to remind you it's not always the squeaky wheel that gets the grease."
While recapping events in her career for the Dallas Morning News in 1989, McClendon explained during an era when there were a small number of women correspondents in Washington, she needed an angle. There were those who used their looks, while others belonged to the in-crowd and threw parties to woo various sources. "I decided I had to make a name for myself, and I had to be strong. I didn't sit down and think of the idea of asking sharp questions, but it just kind of developed into that."
McClendon continued her career into her late 80s. Due to declining health, she made use of a wheelchair in an effort to attend White House briefings and news conferences where she maintained her determination to ask the kind of offbeat questions that were now her trademark.
Reflecting back on the life of Sarah McClendon, famed Washington correspondent Helen Thomas shared memories of a time when David Gergen, a counselor to President Reagan and a highly-placed consultant for a number of Republican and Democratic presidents, told her at a White House Christmas party: "You know when we rehearse the president for those press conferences, we have been able to predict in advance 95% 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!" Thomas went on to say, "She (Sarah) was one of the greatest newspaper women Washington ever saw. She walked in where angels feared to tread. 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."
Following a brief illness, Sarah McClendon died in the VA Medical Center on January 8, 2003 at the age of 92. Her daughter, Sally MacDonald, indicated the cause of death was pneumonia and stated, "She died with her nail polish on. She had a wonderful life."
"It has been a privilege to have lived this life. I cannot wait to get out of bed each morning and start living it some more." Sarah McClendon
The birthplace of Sarah McClendon is now listed with the National Register of Historic Places in Smith County.
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“A President who is secretive, less than honest, or non-responsive to the American for whom he works has forgotten the essential nature of his job.”