Sarah McClendon turned eighty in November. To most Americans who watch the television news, she is known as the reporter who asks Presidents the most pointed, down to earth questions at White House press conferences. To her colleagues and to Washington’s bureaucrats and politicians, she is much more than this impression of directness. She is a one-woman battering ram for the peoples’ right to know about what is going on in their government.
Day after day, reporting for several small Texas dailies and her own sense of civic commitment, Sarah McClendon is asking “those questions,” as one nettled, observer put it. At Eighty, she does not reflect her age. No one dares patronize her with that tone of voice reserved for the elderly. She always focuses the people around her on the issues of the day that she deems important and not on herself.
On the evening of November 26th, her friends and admirers held a birthday celebration at the National Press Club. Bill Moyers was the master of ceremonies with other Texans, Sam Donaldson and author Larry L. King in vintage form. Former Senators William Proxmire and Eugene McCarthy also spoke and added to the McClendon legend.
What is that legend made of anyway? I suggested to the Press Club assemblage that evening at least three parts. First, she has refused to bow to the peer group conformity of the White House press corps. She never engages in that easy trade-off of going easy on someone who indicates special access to information in the future. And she is never awed by the mighty and the powerful as eight Presidents from Roosevelt to Bush have discovered. This independence has not gone unpunished — she is less likely to be called on by Presidents at press conferences — which makes this trait of hers all the more unique.
Second, reporter McClendon has set a record for a working reporter in Washington. Imagine, still not being jaded, full of wonder, curiosity and outrage, replete with a persistence that few half her age would possess. After a couple of decades or so, most reporters become desk editors, editorial writers, columnists, managers or any role that gets them off the arduous beat of daily reporting. Not so with McClendon who redefines older age as merely letting your ideals be eroded.
Here are her own words: “When people ask me if I’m liberal or conservative: a Republican or a Democrat, I always says I’m a newspaper reporter. But if I have to have a label, call me a populist….
“I look on my readers the way a congressman looks on his constituents. I call them ‘my people’ and, at times, I’ve fought hard for them…
“This brings me to a definition of what I think a reporter ought to be: One who feels an obligation to the public interest to study, research, investigate, and reveal facts about government and life. One who accompanies reporting skills with a sense of responsibility to society and the community around him or her, and now the world…”
Her range of Presidential questions reflect this philosophy. She once asked Nixon why veterans were having their GI benefits delayed or denied. Nixon acknowledged the question as one Americans should know the answer to and action followed. The asked President Eisenhower about sending troops to Lebanon without asking Congress and asked the same question to President Reagan 30 years later — thereby reminding the country of the Constitution. She was seen waving her hand frantically to ask Bush a similar question about the Persian Gulf.
Third, she has assumed many roles beyond daily writing of her articles. She has a journalism student internship program that brings out her patience and wisdom as a teacher to many soon-to-be journalists. She also is a penumbra, many a government official has said to himself, “Sarah is getting close, I’d better not do that.” Few people use the phone as heavily as this Tyler, Texas dynamo to probe the behind-the-scenes of a government department or agency.
And she is a jackhammer with her journalistic colleagues demanding that they be more energetic and true to themselves, especially those who reach far greater audiences than does she.
All these features were the objects of plaudits that celebratory evening, even from President Bush who refused to call on her at recent press conferences but then had his press office call her privately to ask what questions she had wanted to ask.
Her many well-wishers are establishing an endowed Sarah McClendon Scholarship Fund at her alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, for the Washington intern program. (contributions may be sent to the Scholarship Fund, 4908 Washington Blvd., Arlington, VA, 22205).
A list of donors was published in The Sarah Special which was passed out to the guests. Only one company of the Fortune 500 was on the list, a tribute of its own kind to McClendon. But that company was Proctor and Gamble — which sells soap, a product Sarah McClendon has been applying to official Washington for half a century.