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Subject: Sarah McClendon, Reporter at the White House

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Date Posted: January 09, 2003 4:52:43 EDT

Sarah McClendon, the tiny, klaxon-voiced White House reporter who covered, pestered, lectured and often infuriated presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, chiefly as the leader of her one-woman McClendon News Service, died today at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center here. She was 92.

First mocked in an almost all-male press corps, then scorned as a vocal crank and finally honored as a pioneer, Ms. McClendon was the nation's longest-serving White House reporter, from 1944 to the early days of the current Bush administration. She became celebrated for questions at presidential news conferences that included local concerns in Texas, her home state, and government lapses overlooked by others.

In the 1950's, she identified herself successively as the representative of so many of her small-town newspaper clients that Dwight D. Eisenhower once demanded to know, "Do you get fired every week?"

Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent recalled: "She made the veins stand out in Eisenhower's head, because he would get so mad. Sometimes people thought her questions were off the wall, but other times, she hit them right in the eye."

Indeed, Ms. McClendon once advised Eisenhower to "leave off some of your golf and go out and visit some of the small cities." She later apologized.

"Citizen journalist is a mission I took for myself," Ms. McClendon wrote in her 1996 memoir, "Mr. President, Mr. President! My 50 Years of Covering the White House." "It offers the best opportunity to serve one's country, the people and the public interest."

In her later years, with just a handful of clients left, she sometimes embraced conspiracy theories without proof. But through the 1990's, she checked the White House's recorded announcement of the president's schedule before dawn. Her hair rinsed a reddish shade called Frisky Fawn, she used a wheelchair but still shouted questions in a style that Eric Sevareid once said could "give rudeness a bad name."

In 1962, she drew a withering rebuke from John F. Kennedy for publicly calling two State Department employees "security risks." Early in his tenure, the first President Bush publicly warned her that "the loudest voice won't always get recognized because it isn't fair to the others." But he took her questions just the same.

"Many a president thought he could change the subject by calling on Sarah and lived to regret it," said Michael D. McCurry, press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton issued a statement today saying, "I hope St. Peter is prepared for the kinds of questions that nearly a dozen presidents had to face."

Ms. McClendon served as a public relations lieutenant in the Women's Army Corps in World War II, and she diligently covered the Veterans Administration, later the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 1974, she drew criticism for asking President Richard M. Nixon about delays in processing G.I. Bill tuition checks for Vietnam veterans. It turned out to be a real problem, and Nixon later acknowledged her in a radio address. Ms. McClendon disclosed that the Secret Service had warned her never again to aim a ballpoint pen at President Nixon when questioning him.

Ms. McClendon was born in Tyler, Tex., and began her career on small Texas newspapers before moving to the Washington bureau of The Philadelphia Daily News in 1944. Two years later she started her news service.

A brief marriage to John Thomas O'Brien produced her only child, Sally Newcomb MacDonald. Mr. O'Brien abandoned his wife while she was pregnant and later died. Besides her daughter, who lives in Washington, Ms. McClendon is survived by a granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

She was a single, working mother when that was rare, and on the day of her first Washington assignment she had to plead with a baby sitter to stay overtime. The sitter agreed, and Ms. McClendon made her deadline.

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