Sarah McClendon, in her own words: Reflections on Nixon, Watergate, and the Press

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into the Watergate Hotel, headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The break-in was a precursor to the landslide re-election of incumbent President Richard Nixon, who defeated Democratic challenger George McGovern by securing 47 states. Nixon declared the election “the clearest choice in this century”. Meanwhile, the train of events that would become known as the Watergate Scandal was only just beginning.

Veteran Washington correspondent Sarah McClendon looks on at a White House press conference (Courtesy of UASC)

Enter 62 year old Sarah McClendon, a World War II veteran, journalist, and native of Tyler who had cemented her reputation as a firebrand in the Washington Press Corp by shaking up Presidential press conferences. McClendon’s lengthy tenure in the Press Corp began during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and continued through the second term of Bill Clinton.

By the time the Watergate scandal broke, she had already tangoed twice with Mr. Nixon: first, over the appointment of former contractor Barry Shillito as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Logistics, at a press conference in September 1969 (p. 135, Mr. President, Mr. President!); and again, over the stockpiling of telephone poles in Vietnam. Her pointed questioning resulted in an appointment to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service. (Dallas Morning News, “Will Pentagon Tactic Work on Probing Lady Journalist?”, 06-20-1971, p 4)

Mr. Nixon once stated at a Press Club Dinner that, “Sarah McClendon asks questions that no man would ever think of.” (Dallas Morning News, “Love Affair is on Record”, 7-12-1970, p. 9) In her estimation, McClendon and Nixon shared an amicable relationship. She would reflect in later years that, contrary to his reputation with the press, Nixon “was extremely nice to me… he would smile at me and say something personal.” (p. 171, My Eight Presidents)

McClendon visits Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas on behalf of the DACOWITS committee (Courtesy of UASC)

Even so, Sarah McClendon recognized that relations between the Press Corp and the Nixon White House were often strained.

In the year before he resigned, McClendon recalled that Nixon “whipped up so much public opinion against the press that I would not have been surprised to have seen a reporter tarred and feathered by Nixon supporters… even after the tapes were discovered, the press was still being blamed for running Nixon out of office.” (p. 177, My Eight Presidents) She would later write that Nixon “seemed to expect the press to be antagonistic…He regarded us as the enemy.” (p. 130, Mr. President, Mr. President!)

In the wake of the scandal itself, McClendon optimistically alleged that, “Watergate has helped the American people immeasurably by opening up the method and the way in which news may be covered at the White House… never in (the) future will presidents get by with hiding this same type of corruption.” (Speech notes, “Indianapolis July 17”, Box 34/Folder 6, “Nixon Admin. – Watergate”, in the Sarah McClendon Papers)

Sarah McClendon meets with Nixon’s successor and former vice president, Gerald Ford                       (Courtesy of UASC)

Rebuffing Nixon’s assertions that he had been ill-treated by the press, McClendon reflected, “Did the press unfairly batter Richard Nixon? As one who has taken pride in taking Presidents to task… I have to say that, as a whole, we did not. We were merely as suspicious of his motives as he was of ours.” (p. 130, Mr. President, Mr. President!)

Sarah McClendon set her sights on President Nixon one last time in February 1974 when she confronted him about his administration’s mishandling of G.I. benefits. (p. 162, My Eight Presidents) After nearly two years of lobbying on behalf of her veteran constituents, McClendon’s efforts finally paid off with widespread personnel and policy revisions in the V.A. On March 12, 1974, Nixon credited Sarah McClendon as a “spirited reporter” who had brought the veterans’ plight to the national stage. (p. 143, Mr. President, Mr. President!)

Of this occasion, McClendon said, “Our war for the veterans was to be the last time when I felt Richard Nixon and I were working in the same direction, or, as I believe he liked to see it, that I was on his team.” (p. 143, Mr. President, Mr. President!)

For more of Sarah McClendon’s insights on the Nixon administration, see her memoirs:

Learn more about the life and works of Sarah McClendon at the University Archives and Special Collections Department of the University of Texas at Tyler:

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  1. Pingback: White House Groupie – Rhetoric of Digital Publishing

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