The youngest of nine children, Sarah Newcomb McClendon was born in Tyler, Texas, on July 8, 1910, to Sidney and Anna Rebecca Bonner McClendon. Growing up in a home where charity and community service were encouraged, Sarah McClendon was exposed early to suffrage and women's rights issues. Her mother took five-year-old Sarah to suffrage rallies, and stories were later told of the girl delivering suffragette speeches standing on the dining room table. McClendon’s father served as chairman of the Smith County Democratic Party for thirty years. McClendon later said of her parents, “I learned public affairs by not only listening to them talk. We would have long discussions at the dinner table. We’d sit around, maybe twelve or fourteen of us, at one long table in our dining room…we’d be sitting there, and maybe we’d eat watermelon or we would listen to political discussions. I was always interested in that.”
According to McClendon, her mother “always inspired me to be whatever I did, not to just marry and have children, but to have a career and be a professional person.” Anna McClendon “married at twenty-one and began having children right away,” Sarah remembered, but “she always wanted to write. She wrote every day. She was a prolific writer.” It was only after her mother died that McClendon read her mother’s letters and found that she “was always extremely worried about would there be any money for Sarah to go to college, would Sarah have some opportunities. She wanted me so much to have opportunities.”
“You Will Become a Reporter”
McClendon attended Tyler public schools and, with financial aid from her siblings, attended Tyler Junior College, where she encountered a teacher who was a graduate of the University of Missouri. “Sarah McClendon,” the teacher announced one day, “you will become a reporter. You will go to the University of Missouri School of Journalism and learn to be a reporter.” McClendon recalled, “I never even thought of it before. I had thought all along that I’d be a lawyer, because most of my family, the men, were great lawyers. So I thought surely I’d be a lawyer. But I realized that women weren’t going to make much money that way, nor would I have any practice at all.” “So it was decided I would try this University of Missouri business,” she continued, “if I could just get the money to go there.” McClendon borrowed money from her siblings and from one of her mother’s former beaus to attend the University of Missouri.
She admitted, “I didn’t think you had to study at a university. I thought you just had to go out with the boys and have dates and do the best you could. I didn’t work hard, didn’t study hard, and didn’t realize how hard you had to work at a big university.” She found, “Everything was against me, sort of. So I didn’t do well. I was really in bad shape with my grades, looked like I was going to flunk out.” She promised her family not to come home during the summers to save money if they would continue to support her. One Christmas McClendon was so homesick that she caught a ride to Texas and nearly froze to death. She subsequently contracted diphtheria and was too ill to return to the university. Her father wrote Walter Williams, dean of the journalism school, and informed him of the situation. Williams replied, telling McClendon “not to worry about the grades, just get well.” McClendon returned to the university with a new outlook.
“Always Get the Story”
“With as bad grades as I had,” she recalled, “I was able to get back in school. That was a school where you had a real newspaper being put out, you worked on holidays and Saturdays there, and really worked and would get credit.” While others went home for the holidays, McClendon stayed behind to work because she “loved it.” When asked about her experience at the school of journalism, McClendon responded, “They really taught. They really made you reporters. I learned really how to cover a story and standards of journalism . . . and [to] always get the story. That’s one of the things I learned—always get the story. . . . And try to figure out a way to get as much of it in the paper as you possibly could, despite the people’s opposition.” McClendon’s tenacity paid off; she graduated from the University of Missouri in 1931.
Tyler Courier Times
McClendon was hired as a special assignment reporter with the Tyler (TX) Courier Times and covered everything from local politics to the federal courts for the next eight years. One of her assignments was to write stories that would persuade the local community to establish a hospital in Tyler. After a few years of lobbying, the town voted to approve a new hospital. The day before the hospital was scheduled to open, a natural gas explosion occurred at a school in nearby New London. McClendon grabbed her photographer and quickly headed for the scene. She was the first reporter to arrive and the first to call in the story. She rode with the first load of patients to Tyler’s new hospital, then returned to the school. “It was just like a war zone,” McClendon remembered years later, “I saw bones that were just like they’d been boiled in oil, it was that violent of an explosion.”
“I Was Going to Prove Myself”
Despite the economic hardships of the Great Depression, Tylerwas a boomtown because of the large amount of oil and natural gas in the region. There was no shortage of stories to cover, but McClendon found herself discriminated against in the newsroom. She recalled, “I was putting myself forward as a reporter, a woman reporter who was going to prove herself, because the men were all acting like women reporters couldn’t do anything but society, and I was going to prove myself to be a reporter who could handle any news. So I worked day and night. I worked Saturdays and Sundays, and I worked on the morning paper. I worked on the afternoon paper. That was my job.”
Although she worked hard to dispel negative stereotypes of female reporters, the newspaper’s management would tell McClendon, “We have to cut back the budget. We don’t have a society editor. Sarah, you have to go back and be the society editor.” At other times the editor of the paper would say, “We have a new budget. We’re going to give you a raise. But we can’t give you a raise because this man’s wife is going to have a baby,” or “This man has to come a long distance to work, so he’s got to buy a new car. We have to give him a raise.” Despite these hardships, she continued to work at the paper and even went so far as to save her editor’s life. An enraged preacher who was the subject of a scorching editorial stormed into the newspaper office and attacked the editor. All of the male reporters fled the office, leaving McClendon alone to watch the two men struggle on the floor. Just as the preacher was about to beat in the editor’s headwith a raised pipe, McClendon grabbed a large telephone and hit the assailant in the head, ending the fight. “Otherwise,” she declared, “my boss would have been killed.”
After the editor divorced his wife and left the paper, McClendon’s new editor was a former colleague. She was working on a story about the local iron-ore industry when her editor warned her not to write any more articles about it. A new angle developed that McClendon wanted to publish a story on, but her editor could not be located, so she went ahead and published the article. Her aggressive investigative journalism infuriated the editor, and McClendon was fired. She continued to work for the International News Service before getting a job at the Beaumont (TX) Enterprise.
Assigned to the courthouse beat, McClendon covered a variety oftrials, including peonage cases where “somebody was trying to enslave somebody else. Blacks, usually. They made them work for nothing or work for very little, and controlled their lives.” Life in Beaumont was pleasant for McClendon. She earned a larger salary, joined the American Newspaper Guild, and even had time to take riding lessons, golf lessons, and language courses. The good life came to an end, however, with the coming of World War II.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps
In 1942 McClendon joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps despite believing, “That’s silly. They can’t get anywhere. They can’t do anything. I’m not going to do that.” She went through basic training at Des Moines, Iowa, and was then selected to go to officer candidate school before being assigned to the public relations office at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. McClendon spent her time “writing and interviewing and planning and suggesting, defending the honor of the Corps, often to other newspaper people.” She was then assigned to the Pentagon as a liaison to the War Department Bureau of Public Relations. There she worked with print media organizations and the motion picture industry. McClendon’s next assignment was in the surgeon general’s office. She found the work “fascinating” and “loved it.” She declared, “I would have stayed in the army if I hadn’t had to get out. I loved it.”
During the summer of 1943, McClendon married John Thomas O'Brien, but the marriage dissolved within months. She discovered she was pregnant but did not tell O’Brien. McClendon concealed her pregnancy from her army superiors and continued to work until honorably discharged. Following the birth of her daughter Sally, McClendon was hired for a Washington news service run by Bascom Timmons of Amarillo and covered Pennsylvania's congressional delegation for the Philadelphia Daily News. Although she had a job, McClendon found herself sometimes overwhelmed.
A Mother and Journalist
As a single mother, McClendon struggled to balance work with motherhood. She relied on babysitters to look after her daughter when she was at work. When asked if she ever got discouraged, McClendon replied, “I didn’t have too much time to get discouraged. I would come in just whooped from the job, and they’d be going out the door. Maybe the child would be crying, and I didn’t have time to take off my clothes and sit down and get a drink or read the paper or something. I had to go to work looking after the child.” On one occasion she was unable to find a sitter, and McClendon remembered, “I had absolutely nothing I could do. I was just at my wit’s end, and somebody said, ‘Call the Red Cross.’” The Red Cross sent a babysitter to look after McClendon’s daughter for a week and did not charge her for their services. McClendon was able to continue to work.
McClendon News Service
In less than a year, she earned a press pass to the White House and began chronicling the final months of Franklin D. Roosevelt's life. Male employees returned to the news service after the end of the war, and once again McClendon was unemployed. She started the McClendon News Service in 1946 and represented more than a dozen small Texas newspapers during the remainder of her journalism career. Still, she faced stiff competition. She helped a fellow reporter named Les Carpenter get a job as the correspondent for the Beaumont Journal, which competed with one of McClendon’s papers. She soon learned that Carpenter had been working “for a month in the same office as me, competing with me, listening to all my phone calls without telling me.” She continued to press on.
One of only five women correspondents in Washington, DC, in 1946, McClendon quickly built a reputation for tenacious reporting. Hearkening back to her suffragette upbringing, she organized a press briefing group for women reporters in Washington, DC, in 1963 and also used her position to argue for women's membership in the National Press Club. On January 1, 1971, McClendon finally received her membership. During her career, she also served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, the Veterans Administration Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, and in various positions in the National Woman's Party.
Questioning the President
McClendon believed that citizens have the right to know what their government is doing. She knew eleven presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, questioned ten, and had good working relationships with all but Lyndon Johnson. When asked about Roosevelt, McClendon acknowledged she did not ask him any questions, “I wasn’t going to show my ignorance, and I was kind of scared of him, too. I knew he was very much a dictator, and I knew he was always right.” In time, McClendon became one of the most outspoken reporters in the White House press briefing room, with a blunt, straightforward style of questioning. Her approach came from being “disgusted with the fact that some of the people we interviewed were not giving direct answers, they weren’t answering questions, and I decided I’d start trying to pierce that fog and get some real direct answers from these people.”
The reaction from McClendon’s fellow journalists was not kind. Older reporters “thought I was abrupt and a newcomer and didn’t know what I was doing, and they thought that I wasn’t working for a big enough paper, and that I should be ignored.” She often heard other reporters “making fun of” her, and she was even accused of “trying to ask questions sharply for publicity purposes.” McClendon simply believed she was trying “to get an answer that I thought the American people needed to know.” At President Dwight Eisenhower's first news conference, she made waves when, as the lone woman in attendance, she was sent to the balcony and told that questions were not encouraged. From her position, McClendon hollered at a startled Eisenhower to ask if this was how future news conferences were to be conducted. Eisenhower eventually changed the format, and from then on, McClendon arrived early, staked out a seat on the front row, and made a point to ask a question at every news conference. McClendon did, however, realize that there were some limitations to her questions.
She once asked why Eisenhower was out of town playing golf. McClendon later realized, “He’d had several heart attacks and he was playing golf for his health.” She quickly sent a note apologizing to Eisenhower for her question and received a personal response in which the president told her that “it was perfectly all right, that he understood that I was trying to get a story, and I had a valid right to ask the question.” Not all of her presidential relationships went so smoothly.
“Please Get Rid of Her”
McClendon first tangled with Lyndon Johnson during his 1948 US senatorial campaign and later wrote unflattering stories concerning influence peddling by Bobby Baker, a Johnson protégé. After he became president, Johnson used his influence to have her fired as correspondent for several Texas newspapers. Johnson once called one of the papers McClendon worked for and complained, “I can’t do my job and take that woman’s questions. So if you’ll please get rid of her, get her away from here.”
On another occasion, McClendon was a correspondent for the San Antonio Light. When the editor of the Light heard that Johnson was ill, they asked McClendon to follow his condition and send updates. When Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary asked why McClendon was asking so many questions about the president’s health, she replied that the Light had asked her to follow the story. She was “fired that afternoon” not because her reporting was inaccurate but because she was “writing stories that Lyndon didn’t want written.”
Nor was she always treated with respect by the president’s staff. On one occasion McClendon asked President Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel John Erlichman about federally-funded daycare centers. Instead of answering the question, Erlichman responded, “McClendon, if you were to ask me had you been to the beauty parlor today, I would say that you hadn’t.” President Nixon, however, “would respond” to her questions and “was very keen on trying to keep his ear to the public.” She remarked, “I don’t know why he got in all that trouble later. I can’t understand it, because he was a man who was very sensitive to public opinion.”
“The Government’s Representatives”
When asked which White House press policies caused the most problems, McClendon replied, “Secrecy. Secrecy. Disgusting secrecy and the attempt to cover up something the boss has done or not done, and try to make him always look very, very much like he’s king and he’s God, and we should not even attack him or ask him a question. That I deplore very much.” In a 1988 interview, she declared, “The press represents the people. We are the government’s representatives looking at government. And by golly if we weren’t doing it, it would be a hell of a lot worse than it is.” But McClendon also felt the media was to be faulted for its shift in news coverage.
She lamented the modern press’s focus on international affairs instead of domestic issues. McClendon groused that the press will “spend forty-five minutes trying to find out who set fire to the chemical factory in Libya and asking one question after another that they know the White House can’t answer questions about, Iran Contra, and never ask a question about homelessness, never a question about high health care cost or poverty or how we’re throwing our children into poverty and into sorrow and tragedy, and never ask questions about many of the things that ought to be asked about all the time. I don’t understand it.”
Late in her career, McClendon authored a weekly syndicated newspaper column and a biweekly newsletter and presided over a weekly radio commentary airing on 1,200 stations across the country. She also published two autobiographies: My Eight Presidents, published in 1978, and Mr. President, Mr. President: My 50 Years of Covering the White House, published in 1996. Sarah McClendon was working on a newsletter article shortly before her death in Washington, DC, on January 9, 2003, at the age of 92.
When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Sarah McClendon replied, “As an individualist who tried to do something for society, for human beings, and maybe accomplished some results.” She once defined a reporter as “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. One who seeks to defend the downtrodden and to expose the special interests, the special privileges that permit personal enrichment, the special practices permitted in big business ostensibly for profits of society but which in the long run build only more wealth and special comforts for the very few at the expense of the many.” Sarah McClendon certainly lived her own beliefs.
Sarah McClendon Papers
The Sarah McClendon Papers are arranged into five series: personal, executive orders, journalism, women’s issues, and women in the military. Her papers primarily focus on women's rights issues and contain correspondence, newspaper columns, news stories, speeches, and other miscellaneous writings, photographs and negatives, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, awards and certificates, press badges and cards, programs, posters, federal agency reports and publications, and research materials.
Text and research by Kimberly Harper.