Why has a 72-year-old Washington newspaper reporter, former WAC and active DAR member shouted at American presidents since the days of Harry Truman? On one warm morning this week, Sarah McClendon laid out doughnuts and coffee, fretted that her maid hadn't cleaned her quiet Northwest townhouse, led a caller into the dining room where it was cooler and then, in a Texas drawl that occasionally broke into outrage, explained her raucous style.

"If it looks disrespectful," says McClendon, "then it looks disrespectful. The president works for us. There are too many people in this country who let the president walk all over them."

A week ago, McClendon staged her latest one-woman verbal ambush on Ronald Reagan. As more than 40 million Americans watched the live press conference, a small woman with unruly red hair stood up among her well-behaved colleagues in the White House East Room and loudly accused the president of suppressing a Justice Department report on discrimination against women, which included, as she put it, information about "sex harassment." Reagan said he hadn't received the report, deflected with "Now, Sarah" and joked that their "discussion" might get an "R rating." But McClendon zoomed in 11 times for the facts, scolding and needling the nation's chief executive.

That's when the scolding really began. White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said there was a "heavy onslaught" of public calls protesting McClendon's performance. NBC's Roger Mudd suggested the president had called on her for "comic relief." ("That made me so goddamned mad, let me tell you," she says.) CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl said McClendon was "rude." Later, McClendon critcized Stahl on the "CBS Morning News."

Meanwhile, McClendon claimed her phone was ringing with support from Florida to Washington state, as well as in town. She says she's heard accolades from "bellboys, taxi drivers, White House policemen and Capitol Hill cops." She's been on radio talk shows in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Boston. This week, CBS' Dan Rather called her "the talk of Washington" and commentator Bill Moyers, in the same broadcast, praised her for "prowling the maze" of government corridors, adding, "May she roam and reign forever."

But her real victory came two days after the press conference, when the report she was after was finally released. (It said that "considerable progress" has been made against sex discrimination, but concluded that the fight "is not yet over.")

"I'm not trying to put on a show," McClendon says. "I'm not after publicity . . . as I look at it, every citizen has a reason to be stirred up."

In 38 years, Sarah McClendon's questions have become as familiar in Washington as presidential side-stepping at White House press conferences. She is the reporter for a group of small newspapers, mostly in Texas, and has thrived less because of her influence than because of her dogged, give-'em-hell style. Some of her colleagues consider her tangential and annoying, especially when her questions amble off the main subject into a time-consuming, one-on-one with the president. But through the years--and the insults--she has gained friends and a hard-won respect.

Her most infamous question was in 1962, when John F. Kennedy, in what one newspaper referred to as "an extraordinary episode for a news conference," angrily rebuked her for asking him about two men she called "security risks" who worked in the State Department. In 1974, she asked Richard Nixon about delays in GI Bill tuition checks, told him he was being misinformed, and shook her ballpoint pen at him.

She had less access to Jimmy Carter. She says he called on her eight times in four years. Jody Powell, Carter's former press secretary, recalls that "I was not one of those press secretaries who advised the president to call on Sarah to get out of a mess." Ron Nessen, who was one of Gerald Ford's press secretaries as well as a Washington correspondent for NBC, says that "there used to be a theory that presidents liked to call on Sarah. You could be fairly sure she would change the subject."

Reagan, so far, appears ambivalent about McClendon, although she says that "I'm sure he likes me personally." After the last press conference, Speakes says that Reagan asked, "What was she talking about? I thought I answered her question." Speakes describes her as "feisty" and "well intentioned," and adds that "she's been badgering me on this women's report for three to four months."

McClendon says she's been concerned about women's rights since 1916 when, as a 6-year-old, she was taken to Texas suffragette meetings by her public-spirited mother. She bristles when it's suggested, as one press account did last week, that her feminism began 38 years ago when her husband left her, while she was pregnant, for another woman.

"HELL NO!" she yells. "That's absurd . . . It made me have to work awful hard to support myself, and that's all of the effect. I let go of him and went on to other people . . . You don't live by revenge.

"That's not the only sad romance I've had in my life, my gosh. I've had several bad romances and several good ones. I've been dating men all my life, but my career has always interfered with my love life. The men want you to pay attention to them and stop thinking about that story." She recalls that as a young reporter in Texas, she was dancing at a party when she heard about a murder. Wasting no time, she left the dance floor to cover it.

These days, she says, "I hope to get married yet. I have four boyfriends. I would love to be married. But as for settling down quietly, I would hate to be a little namby-pamby ninny. It would be nice to sit at home and read a book and get your hair fixed. But we've got so many problems in this country and so many questions to be answered."

She grew up in Tyler, a small town in eastern Texas. She says her father, a piano salesman and later postmaster, was chairman of the county Democratic committee and also an orator much in demand for Masonic funerals. His daughter attended the University of Missouri's journalism school, worked for the Tyler Courier-Times, joined the Women's Army Corps in World War II and, in 1944, began her Washington newspaper career with the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. She didn't ask FDR any questions because she was, as she writes in her 1978 book, "My Eight Presidents," "too shy."

Her day begins at 6 a.m. She listens to the news, reads the papers, calls the White House to see what's on the schedule, calls a few congressmen and maybe some people at the Pentagon, then heads for Speakes' 9:15 a.m. press briefing. Afterward, she makes calls from her booth in the White House pressroom, heads up to Capitol Hill, checks the Senate and House press galleries, goes back to the White House for the noon briefing, then returns to the Hill for lunch at the press table in the Senate restaurant. "You pick up a lot of stuff there," she says, "as well as a few laughs."

In the afternoon she researches stories, either from the Hill or the White House. When she gets home, she makes calls and writes. She has dinner at 9 p.m., then goes back to the typewriter. She says she writes most of Saturday and Sunday, too.

"If I had the strength," she says, "I'd rather work than sleep." She says her stories, which hardly anyone in Washington ever sees, are an "oversimplified, humanized, summing-up of national issues."

Does she ever get tired?

"No," she says, "I thrive on it . . . I would never leave reporting. Asking questions is the way to live."