Aggressive. Irritating. Relentless. A presidential pain-in-the-pressroom. And, no, we're not talking about Sam Donaldson.
Donaldson was still a little nipper when White House reporter Sarah McClendon started sparring with the high and mighty. After 46 years and 10 presidents, the red-haired Texas terror is still throwing hardballs. Last night at the National Press Club, 300 fans and colleagues tossed "A Salute to Sarah" in celebration of her 80th birthday earlier this year.
"Everything I know about asking questions is from Sarah," said Donaldson, a fellow Texan who grew up reading McClendon's stories in the El Paso Times. "You're there to get an answer, not win a popularity contest. The fact is that presidents answer her questions. She stays on them and they respect her for it."
"I was scared to death of her," remembered playwright Larry L. King, who first met her in 1954, while he was working for a congressman. "I always treated her like she was going to attack me with a club." Being a female reporter in those days, said King, meant "she had to be tenacious and mean as hell to get anyone to take her seriously."
Tenacious, to put it mildly, but with one goal: to get the story, to dig out the truth for the little guys outside the Beltway. "I think we can save the world with journalism," she told the audience last night. And she means it.
Everybody had a Sarah story and everyone wanted to tell one. The podium was jammed with the likes of emcee Bill Moyers, UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas, comedian Mark Russell, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, journalist and former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter and former senators Eugene McCarthy and William Proxmire.
In a 2 1/2-hour stream of one-liners and affectionate teasing, McClendon was honored for giving hell and fighting for the underdogs -- she is credited with forcing the White House to address veterans benefits, health care and women's issues. "Her questions," said Moyers, "often struck a nerve in the body politic."
The tribute, which raised more than $35,000 to launch the Sarah McClendon Scholarship Fund at the University of Missouri, featured a onetime edition of the Sarah Special and an elaborate cake in the shape of a typewriter. It had a greeting from President Bush rolling out of the carriage: "All of us who know you as a hard-charging reporter also know that underneath the thorns lies a heart as soft and lovely as a Tyler Rose."
McClendon, the youngest of nine children, was born in Tyler, a small town in east Texas. Her father was postmaster and chairman of the county Democratic committee. Her mother was an ardent suffragette -- an example that no doubt inspired her successful battle to admit women as equal members of the National Press Club. "I loved to stand up on our dining room table and entertain my family with my version of suffragist rhetoric," she wrote. "My speeches were such a hit that I ended up on top of the table every time we had guests."
She moved from the soapbox to the press box with a degree from Missouri's journalism school and a stint at the Tyler Courier-Times before coming to Washington. After serving in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, she launched her career as White House correspondent for a string of small Texas papers in 1944.
In her 1978 memoir, "My Eight Presidents," McClendon wrote that she was "too shy" to ask Franklin Roosevelt anything.
Every administration has a McClendon story. Ruth Montgomery of Hearst Headline Service once described her colleague as Dwight Eisenhower's "chief tormentor." There was the time she created an international incident when she asked John F. Kennedy about two State Department officials she termed "security risks." She shook her ballpoint pen at Richard Nixon. Even a fellow Texan found her overwhelming: Lyndon Johnson once called one of McClendon's editors to ask for a break from her take-no-prisoners approach.
"It is Sarah," wrote the Associated Press in 1971, "who in shrill and accusing tones often asks embarrassing questions at presidential news conferences."
In 1982, she was both lauded and lambasted when she grilled Ronald Reagan about a Justice Department report on discrimination against women. The press conference was broadcast live to 40 million people and McClendon -- once again -- found herself playing tug of war with a president.
"I thought it was terrific," said Donaldson. "If Reagan can't take care of himself against Sarah McClendon, why was he elected?"
He broke into a big smile. "Just kidding, Ronnie."
McClendon said she has no intention of slowing down or easing up. She may be 80, but treat her like a sweet little old lady and you're in big trouble.
"Nobody talks to Sarah in a condescending voice," said Nader. "At least, nobody does it twice."