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Speaking of Texas: Sarah McClendon

A Texan in Washington: Tyler native Sarah McClendon covered the White House for six decades

Known for her pointed questions at presidential news conferences, Sarah McClendon considered herself a “citizen journalist.” (Photo courtesy Sarah McClendon Papers, MS-0081992-A.  University Archives & Special Collections. Robert R. Muntz Library. The University of Texas at Tyler.) By Gene Fowler

Texas women are known for taking the bull by the horns. And few, if any, faced off with more terrifying toros than Sarah Newcomb McClendon (1910-2003). As one of the first female members of the White House Press Corps, the diminutive redhead from the Piney Woods of East Texas went toe to toe with every U.S. President from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush. When she died in January 2003, The Dallas Morning News noted that “offbeat questions” had been her trademark, delivered in a “colorful and aggressive style [that] bedeviled and amused presidents and other officials for nearly six decades.”           

Born in Tyler in 1910, the youngest of nine children, Sarah McClendon grew up in a politically active family. Her father served as local chairman of the Democratic Party, and her literary club-founding mother attended every women’s suffrage rally in the area. She wrote in her 1996 autobiography, Mr. President, Mr. President!, that as a preschooler, she often tagged along with her mother, and her brothers would sometimes lift her up onto the dining room table and encourage her to “re-cite the fiery speeches I’d memorized from hearing so many times.”

The diminutive redhead from East Texas went toe to toe with every U.S. President from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush.

After graduating from Tyler Junior College, and then from the University of Missouri, McClendon slung ink for the Tyler and Beaumont dailies before World War II. Joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, she served as the first female First Lieutenant in the Office of the Army Surgeon General. Married briefly to a man named John Thomas O’Brien (they separated after only a few months), McClendon became the first Army officer to give birth in a military hospital when her daughter, Sally, arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Upon mustering out of the Army, she returned to the newspaper trade as a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News. She lost that post when the soldiers came home, which motivated her to start the one-woman McClendon News Service, covering the White House and the nation’s capital for a dozen or so newspapers from Texas to New England. “Her greatest strength was that she never really left Tyler and Texas,” says daughter Sally MacDonald. “For all her life, she remained a Texan at heart.”

McClendon began sharpening her famed bluntness with presidents when Harry Truman took office in 1945. She later wrote that Roosevelt, whom she considered the greatest U.S. President for leading the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, intimidated her. By the time Dwight Eisen-hower assumed the office in 1953, the Tyler native had perfected the often-acerbic McClendon style. In 1959, she famously asked “Ike” to name a policy decision in which Vice President Richard Nixon had played a significant role. Ike thought a moment, then said, “Give me a week.”

'She fought harder than almost anyone else to change public policy in favor of the rights of women, veterans, and disenfranchised people.'

Though she confessed in her second autobiography that she “adored” President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, she cut him no slack either, once causing a minor hubbub when she grilled him about two administration officials she believed to be security risks. And like anyone with substantive interaction with the larger-than-life son of the Hill Country, McClendon had a complicated relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson. A favored reporter for a time, she incurred the president’s displeasure by breaking the story about influence peddling by Bobby Baker, Secretary to the Senate Majority Party, whom she described as Johnson’s “protegé.”

Nor did she swoon to the considerable charms of Ronald Reagan, repeating a question 11 times about his alleged suppression of a Department of Justice report on discrimination against women.

By the Clinton presidency, she was such a White House icon that the former Arkansas governor, upon meeting her, said, “Now I know I am really here.” Clinton later named McClendon, who was vocal about veterans’ issues throughout her career, to the 12-member National World War II Memorial Advisory Board. Her support of the disenfranchised led the Veterans Administration to name a homeless shelter for her in Washington, D.C.

After her death, a writer for The Washington Post lamented the loss of her “loud, unruly, often refreshing presence.” Other keen observers, like ABC News veteran Sam Donaldson, recalled the noble purposes for which she asserted herself. “She fought harder than almost anyone else,” wrote Donaldson, “to change public policy in favor of the rights of women, veterans, and disenfranchised people.”

McClendon House

Sarah McClendon’s childhood home, the stately 1878 Bonner-Whitaker-McClendon House in Tyler, opens to the public for tours. Occupied by descendants of Judge M.H. Bonner, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1878 to 1882 (and McClendon’s grandfather), for more than a century, it now features rotating exhibits of hundreds of artifacts, including newspapers dating to the 1840s and military items from the Civil War through World War II. Living-history tours throughout the year offer a glimpse of Tyler society during the same eras. Call 903/592-3533; http://mcclendonhouse.net.

—Nola McKey

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