Veteran Washington correspondent Sarah McClendon, a prickly, high-pitched presence at White House news conferences since the days of Harry Truman, was at the center of controversy again yesterday for her sharp questioning of President Reagan at Wednesday night's media session.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said there had been a "heavy onslaught" of public calls protesting that McClendon's style of questioning Reagan on the administration's dealing with discrimination against women in the federal government demonstrated disrespect for the president.
On Capitol Hill, two members of Congress defended McClendon and criticized Reagan in brief speeches on the House floor for what they described as his attempt to make light of the serious problems of sexual harassment of women in government.
The last reporter recognized by Reagan at the news conference, McClendon accused the president of suppressing a Justice Department report on federal laws discriminating against women that was delivered to the White House on June 28. Reagan said he had not received the report.
"You got it, you got part of it," McClendon insisted in her familiar Texas twang. " . . . And it says there has been a lot of sex harassment of women . . . . And I suggest that you looked into that and you talked about it at the Cabinet meeting."
Reagan then said, "Now Sarah, just a minute here with the discussion or we'll be getting an R rating."
Laughter from McClendon's colleagues rippled through the room.
Yesterday Speakes acknowledged that Reagan had been briefed on the report at a sub-Cabinet meeting but had not received a copy of it and has not taken any action.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "I was appalled not only because the president sought to evade an earnest and appropriate question but also because the president thought it appropriate to joke publicly about one form of discrimination and abuse, the problem of sexual harassment."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said she was shocked after reading the transcript of the news conference.
"Half the taxpayers of the country don't think it is all that funny," she said.
Speakes said Reagan was not attempting to make light of the problem of sexual harassment, but was teasing McClendon for saying "sex harassment" when she obviously meant "sexual harassment."
McClendon, 72, who came to Washington during World War II after working on newspapers in her home town of Tyler, Tex., is something of a Washington tradition for treating eight straight presidents like equals, one of her colleagues, United Press International White House reporter Helen Thomas, recalled in a dispatch yesterday.
Some presidents have enjoyed the challenge, while others clearly have not, Thomas said. Truman answered her in kind. Dwight D. Eisenhower became almost apoplectic with anger at her questions, veins popping out on his forehead. John F. Kennedy found her amusing and called on her frequently. Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter avoided calling on her at all, but Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford seemed to like her style and recognized her often.
Tom DeFrank of Newsweek magazine, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said yesterday that he was disturbed that other reporters laughed at McClendon's question Wednesday night.
"Sarah's conduct can make you cringe sometimes, but she has every right to ask a question in whatever fashion she chooses," DeFrank said. "I have never bought this ridiculous argument that presidents must be handled with kid gloves and addressed in the most reverential terms."
But decorum matters to the Reagan White House, which has attempted to put a stop to the hand waving and cacophony of voices of reporters seeking to be recognized. Before Wednesday's news conference reporters were instructed to speak only when they had been called on.