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It’s Wednesday evening and about a dozen people have gathered to talk politics at the media elite’s favorite stomping ground, the National Press Club’s Reliable Source restaurant. But the Sarah McClendon Study Group does not feature your typical inside-the-Beltway, Crossfire-and-cappuccino crowd.
Tonight’s salon includes a former CIA agent, a chain-smoking Ross Perot cheerleader, a man who runs a private museum dedicated to the Confederacy, and a woman who describes herself as a “whistle-blowing” former Metropolitan Police Department officer. “They’ve tried to have me arrested. They’ve tried to have me committed,” she confides. (It’s unclear who “they” are.)
Even before the meeting begins, the group is chattering about phone taps and an illegal gas used by the FBI during the Waco standoff. The featured guest, former Baltimore Sun White House Correspondent Bob Timberg, does not stand a chance. Timberg, who has come to talk about his upcoming book, quickly loses control of the discussion to those bent on implicating Colin Powell and Senators Bob Dole and John McCain in a conspiracy that spans everything from Vietnam to Iran-contra. Within minutes, the group is accusing McCain of orchestrating a POW cover-up operation and charging Mary land Gov. Parris Glendening with 80,000 carjackings.
Just as the debate threatens to get completely out of hand, the elderly woman in the wheelchair at the end of the table brings it back to planet Earth. “Shut up!” commands Sarah McClendon. The participants quiet down like chastened schoolkids, and Timberg completes his interrupted presentation.
A gathering of conspiracy theorists may seem like odd company for an 84-year-old journalist, but veteran White House correspondent and D.C. institution McClendon has never been one for convention.
Countless American celebrities are famous for being famous (see, for example, Zsa Zsa Gabor, or anyone on Hollywood Squares). But McClendon is famous for being infamous.
She is the doyenne of the White House press corps. The octogenarian has covered 11 presidents—from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton—and outlasted 10 of them (so far—Clinton may have only 18 months left in the Oval Office). But if she’s the oldest of the reporters who follow the chief executive, she can also be the least cooperative. Her theatrics and her nose for minutiae have reduced chief executive after chief executive to a sputtering ball of confusion.
In a city that rewards homogeneity, McClendon has become legendary for her refusal to bow to presidential politesse. From her seat in the back of the White House briefing room, the red-headed lady, scarcely 5 feet tall and permanently hunched from many years at the keyboard, jumps up and down, shouts, screams, whistles, and does whatever she has to in order to get the attention of the president. (McClendon’s voice is loud—“Ethel Merman and Martha Rae combined,” says one longtime observer. George Bush once told her, “Sarah, I can hear you all the way to Mexico.”)
And while the rest of the press corps hounds the president about the issue of the day, be it impending war in the Persian Gulf, the budget, or the state of the economy, McClendon demands to know what the commander in chief is going to do about an obscure government report on discrimination against women in federal agencies, or when Nashua, N.H., will get its federal highway money.
Though she is mostly confined to the wheelchair, McClendon, who turns 85 on July 8, still makes it to White House briefings on occasion. She still yells and jumps out of her seat. And she still churns out copy. She writes a weekly column, “Sarah McClendon’s Washington,” for a string of small newspapers around the country; turns out a biweekly newsletter, Sarah McClendon’s Washington Report; and runs the McClendon News Service from her home, which services radio and print media. Four years ago, she even founded the McClendon Study Group as a forum on issues ignored by the mainstream media.
Paul Costello, who served as deputy press secretary to first lady Rosalyn Carter, says that McClendon was “a force to be reckoned with” in her heyday.
“I don’t think fear has ever entered into that woman’s body,” Costello says. “She was a Sam Donaldson decades before he came into prominence.”
McClendon has never held a title that was worth much by conventional Washington standards. For 50 years, she has written mostly for small-town papers that few in the White House have heard of, much less seen—dailies like the Sherman Democrat, the Port Arthur News, and the Lufkin Daily News. McClendon was almost never part of the “big story.” Nor did she want to be.
McClendon says her goal is “to be the bridge between big government and little people.” And unlike a lot of people who arrived in Washington full of glorious promises, McClendon has remained steadfast.
Born in 1910 in Tyler, a town in the heart of East Texas, McClendon was the youngest of nine children. After scraping up enough money to attend the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she returned to Tyler, “too scared,” she says, to begin a career as a reporter.
But one day in 1931 she marshaled her courage and called the editor of the Tyler Courier-Times. She was hired the same day and paid $10 a week to write one story a day. “It was so much fun. We had everything: rape, murder, fires, scandals,” she says.
It was in Tyler, McClendon says, that she learned to be tough. She is fond of telling the story of a traveling preacher who was savaged in a Courier-Times editorial. The angry preacher burst into the newsroom and tackled the editor. Everyone fled but McClendon. The preacher held the editor in a bear hug and was preparing to bash his brains out against an exposed pipe.
“So I took an old phone nearby and bashed him over the head with it,” McClendon says happily. She knocked the preacher out cold.
When World War II came, she joined the Women’s Army Corps, left Texas and was assigned to the Pentagon as a public-affairs officer. Married and expecting a child, she left the Army in 1943. But her husband ran off with an old flame. Sarah worked throughout her pregnancy, and raised her daughter by herself.
Her big break came in 1944. Most male journalists were overseas—either fighting in the war or covering it—and McClendon landed a job with the Philadelphia Daily News. Soon she was covering the White House, one of the few women with such a prestigious beat.
“We’ve always had women journalists in this country,” said McClendon. “You know the story about the woman who sat on John Adams’ clothes while he was swimming: She wouldn’t get up until he promised to give her a story. Some people say it’s not true, but I believe it.”
McClendon eventually left the Daily News, and during the next few decades she built a career on bringing parochial issues to the nation’s capital, then back to the heartland.
The presidents, especially Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t know what to make of her. Ike’s advisers urged him not to call on her because nobody had ever heard of the papers she worked for and nobody knew what obscure topic she might bring up. Because McClendon represented so many different small-town papers at once, she would introduce herself differently at each White House briefing, sometimes as a reporter from the Waco News-Tribune, sometimes as one from the Austin-American Statesman.
These mutations, she says, prompted Eisenhower to ask her during one press conference whether she didn’t get fired every week from one paper and hired by another.
Lyndon Johnson didn’t much like her, either, she says. LBJ once made her “stay after class” in order to bawl her out for her obscure questions. “Johnson got me fired from four papers,” she proudly proclaims. “He called them up to say that he couldn’t do his job with me asking those questions and would they please take me off the job.”
The narrow interests of McClendon’s two-bit dailies also put her at odds with the elite White House reporters.
“They hated my guts at times,” she recalls. “They made fun of me, they laughed at me. I would walk out of the door, and they would pretend they never had anything to do with me so they could stay on good terms with the press secretaries.”
McClendon’s attention to small-town problems and her access to presidents has earned her a few scoops. After accepting a congressional aide’s offer to read a congressman’s constituent mail, McClendon noticed a pattern of complaints from veterans bemoaning late benefit checks.
She promptly took the issue to Richard Nixon at the next White House press conference. Nixon at first had no idea of what she was talking about. But he ordered an investigation into the issue, a probe that resulted in the dismissal of all the top brass of the Veterans Administration.
Now, after half a century asking pestering questions at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., McClendon has become a celebrity in her own right. Last year, she made an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, and next week, in honor of her 85th year, the American News Women’s Club will roast her at the Four Seasons.
First lady Hillary Clinton will host the ceremony, but the president is not going to appear. He’s probably afraid. McClendon, after all, is liable to interrupt the celebration, leap out of her wheelchair, and start pelting him with tricky questions.