Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Look out, Jimmy Carter, that queen of the question, Sarah McClendon; is heading for the grass roots. The next question she asks you may tell you more about what's happening out there than what you tell her in your reply.
After 34 years of being the thorn-in-residence to every president except Franklin D. Roosevelt - "I was too shy to ask him any questions," she says - she is off to promote her first book, "My Eight Presidents."
Don't for a minute think she has any intention of talking only about herself or her presidents. She is taking along a notebook to jot down what people are saying. And what the taxi drivers, elevator operators, waiters and desk clerks of this land tell her promises to provide fodder for a whole range of future questions to her eighth president.
Wednesday night, McClendon stood autographing her book at a party Francie Barnard, an "alumna" of the McClendon school of question-and-answers, gave at the Georgetown home of Bob Woodward. Nearly 100 guests who have seen McClendon in action over the years came to pay her tribute.
There was Sen. John Tower, the Republican from Texas, where McClendon has her own grass roots, recalling that he first met her in 1938 at Tyler, Tex., when his father was district superintendent of the Methodist Church and she was writing for The Tyler Courier-Times.
Some years later, he said, she was "my inquisitor" on NBC's "Meet the Press," substituting for the late May Craig. "I was too dumb not to know better than to meet those murderers," Tower said of the still-vivid grilling he got.
Her peer group was out in force, among them UPI's Helen Thomas, CBS's Bob Schieffer, Knight-Ridder's Vera Glaser, NBC's Judy Woodruff, Stearns News Service's Jessie Stearns, The Washington Star's Isabelle Shelton and Stephenson News Bureau's Malvina Stephenson.
McClendon's "No. 1 quality is really courage," said Glaser, "and that does not always endear you to people in high places."
"When you're asking tough questions of presidents, of politicians," said Thomas, "it's not the way to endear yourself, but we're not in business to endear ourselves."
McClendon, who says her questions affect people's lives even if her approach has been misunderstood by many of her colleagues, believes presidents learn from their questionrs.
"A president is an all-purpose man who can't know everything going on in government. He learns from his press conference," she said, "especially if he lets a variety of reporters ask questions."
In Carter's 18 months in office, he has let McClendon get in three questions. Her first, on a controversial appointment for a key energy post, she said was never answered.