Grand Dames of the Press Corps: Sarah McClendon and Helen Thomas

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Left, Helen Thomas at work in the White House. Photograph, Bettmann/Corbis. Right, Sarah McClendon in her office.
{Photograph, Ankers/UASC}

It’s hard to avoid comparisons between the two grand dames of the White House Press Corps, Sarah McClendon and Helen Thomas. New York Times described Helen as the “unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps… [whose] blunt question and sharp tone made her a familiar personality” and declared Sarah “the tiny, klaxon-voiced White House reporter who covered, pestered, lectured, and often infuriated presidents”. Each woman was considered a Press Corps institution in her own right. Most importantly, each woman broke down barriers for generations of female journalists.

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Sarah McClendon poses a question to LBJ in the White House Press Room. {UASC}

The women cheerfully tolerated comparisons throughout their long careers. As Texas Governor Ann Richards remarked, “they may have been competitors, but they were never rivals… they’re both fierce, dauntless journalists who are going to fight to the ground for every shred of news there is”. Helen was the seventh of nine children born to Lebanese immigrants, while Sarah was the youngest of nine children from a family of Irish-Texans. Each woman outlasted eleven presidents, with Sarah covering every administration from Roosevelt to Clinton and Helen covering Kennedy through Obama in 2010. The two women even died at the same age – 92 – writing and reporting to the very end.

ImageHelen Thomas questions LBJ in the Oval Office, 1968. {Frank Wolfe/LBJ Library, via Reuters}

Helen began her career at UPI in 1943, the same year Sarah McClendon began covering the Pentagon as a WAC reporter. Sarah joined the White House Press Corps in 1944, representing a series of small regional newspapers through her one-woman wire service. Helen joined the Corps in 1961 and went on to become chief correspondent for UPI, the first woman appointed head of a national wire service in the White House Press Corps. Sarah and Helen shared many hardships in the early decades, at a time when women were relegated to the balcony of the National Press Club and barred entirely from many Washington Press Corps events.

The two women joined forces to picket the Gridiron Club in the 1960s, and pressured the Kennedy administration to boycott the White House Correspondents dinner and National Press Club luncheons until women were allowed to attend.

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Sarah McClendon’s early White House Correspondents Association card, 1951. {UASC}

Helen and Sarah competed for many firsts and near firsts for women in journalism: Sarah was among the first female members of the White House Press Association, while Helen became its first female president in 1975. Helen served as the first female member of the Washington Press Corps club, known as the Gridiron Club.

Helen and Sarah joined the first class of women admitted to the National Press Club on March 3, 1971. Helen was the first woman elected to club office (as finance secretary) in 1971, while Sarah was the first woman to serve as high official after defeating three men in a 1974 special election for the unexpired term of the vice-presidency. The American News Women’s Club (ANWC) awarded Helen and Sarah the prestigious Excellence in Journalism award in 1993 and 1995 respectively.

Image National Press Club newsletter announcing Sarah’s election in 1974 {UASC}

Although Helen and Sarah pursued different audiences (Helen wrote for a more international audience, while Sarah represented regional interests), they held each other in mutual high regard. They often appeared together on panels, at award ceremonies, and across the Press Corps speaking circuit. Sarah appeared as a guest of honor at Helen Thomas’ American News Women’s Club Roast in 1993 and Helen gave a speech at Sarah’s 85th birthday celebration, “A Salute to Journalist Sarah McClendon”, in 1995.

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Invitation to Sarah McClendon’s 85th birthday celebration and roast {UASC}

In an oral history interview with the Washington Press Corp Foundation, Sarah named Helen Thomas the reporter she most admired, saying, “She never fails to ask the questions that should be asked. She’s got the nerve to press it and press it through.”

In her second memoir, Mr. President, Mr. President, Sarah wrote, “The top print journalist in my book is Helen Thomas… She was a real door opener for women.” (p.240-241) Helen returned the praise in her own memoir, Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times, declaring Sarah “an icon in the White House pressroom. Her questions have made presidents squirm and I’m sure that she’s also made their blood boil – but they always answer her. Furthermore, she puts them to shame and makes them act.” (p. 383)

At Sarah McClendon’s 90th birthday celebration, hosted by the National Press Club in 2001, Helen Thomas said, “Her greatest contribution, I think, is that there’s never been any woman in our country who has ever helped newspaper women more. She’s been a pioneer, she paved the way, she made the breakthrough for all of us and I think we are indebted for life.”

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Sarah McClendon and Helen Thomas (right) confer at the book release party for Harriett Woods’ “Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women” in March 2000.

Want to Learn More about Sarah McClendon?
1. Visit the finding aid for the Sarah McClendon papers.
2. Check out our permanent digital exhibit.
3. Read more about her career as a White House Correspondent.
4. See our previous posts on the Sarah McClendon Papers.

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Filed under Sarah McClendon Papers, Special Collections

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