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Knight: Today I'd like to talk to you more about your time in Washington, D.C., and your point of view about journalism in your own career as you look back on it. You have written a lot about the substance of what you've done. I read your book that was first My Eight Presidents and then I heard you were writing about My Nine Presidents, and I hope to read the latest manuscript, My Ten Presidents. I want to talk some more about the "how" and "why," rather than the "what" today.
Describe to me your feelings and your experience of the very first presidential press conference that you ever attended.
McClendon: I was quite scared. I didn't ask any questions, and I figured that if I did, I would show my ignorance, because I'd just come up from being in the army and I had not kept up with current events as much as I should have, and I didn't know as much about the war, really, as one might think. So I kept quiet, but I was watching the other people, and they were very distinguished, very wonderful, brilliant news correspondents, people in history, really. They were writing on each other's backs, the room was so crowded, and you couldn't see very well.
I had to squinch down and run around to try to even see the desk where [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was. Then I saw him, with his hands shaking like this, and I saw him hide his hands under the desk, because he didn't want people to realize how ill he was. But it was quite an experience. I was overwhelmed with the majesty of the moment and with the brilliance of the reporters around me.
Knight: You never asked FDR any questions?
McClendon: No, indeed. I wasn't going to show my ignorance, and I was kind of scared of him, too. I knew he was very much of a dictator, and I knew he was always right, but I knew that he had given one man, Drew Pearson, a very fine reporter, a great columnist, he had given him a dunce cap and told him to go in the corner and stand as a dunce. Then he'd given another man, John O'Donnell of the New York Daily News, he gave him an Iron Cross from Germany because what he had written, he said, had not helped the war effort.
Knight: I also read that you saw the women reporters who had distinguished themselves because they developed a certain personality and style, and that you made a conscious decision to do that.
McClendon: Yes, I did.
Knight: How did that transformation take place?
McClendon: I watched Esther Tufty, and she had everybody calling her "the Duchess." She was tall and statuesque and beautiful, long braids. She had established this idea that she was very
important and that she was the one to talk to and the one to invite to everything. I noticed several other women, Ruth Montgomery of the New York Daily News, a beautiful woman, I noticed that she was quite chummy with many, many senators and people of note. I decided that I wasn't going to get anywhere just trying to cover the news; I had to get acquainted with people and try to go out to more events. Of course, being new in town, I wasn't invited around.
So I just decided I was going to have to do something, and I was disgusted with the fact that some of the people that we interviewed were not giving direct answers, they weren't answering questions, and I decided that I'd start trying to pierce the fog and get some real direct answers from these people. So consciously or otherwise, I started doing that. As people saw me ask questions, Cabinet officers began calling me up and asking me to come to their press conferences, which was a plus.
Also, I discovered while I was there, if Roosevelt didn't want someone to know something, nobody in government was going to talk to you about that subject. So I discovered, also, the best way to get somebody on the phone was to call the top man. If you asked for a lower official, you would get nothing. So I would call offices and I would ask for the Cabinet officer, and they'd say, "Who's calling?"
I'd say, "Well, a friend of his." [Laughter.] And sometimes I'd get people to come to the telephone, pretty important people.
Knight: And soon they became friends.
Knight: You also said that you were shy. So making this choice, transforming yourself, was it difficult?
McClendon: Yes, very difficult. It still is. I'm still shy.
Knight: I don't believe that.
McClendon: Well, I have to make myself do things that I see have to be done, and every day constantly I'm making myself get up and act and work and do something that I think should be done, and it's always an effort.
Knight: When do you think your style truly emerged and people realized that you had adopted this kind of style?
McClendon: Well, they began criticizing my questions very definitely, because they were certainly different from the questions that had been asked. I heard a man ask [Harry] Truman, when I first came here, saying, "Mr. President, would you entertain a question on this so and so?" Sort of the British diplomatic atmosphere type thing. I thought that was stupid. So I just asked him directly, sharply, and people began to criticize this.
Some of the older reporters were the most critical, the ones who had used the former style. They thought I was abrupt and a newcomer and didn't know what I was doing, and they thought that I wasn't working for a big enough paper, and that I should be ignored. So some of these reporters really began to work on my sources, to try to keep them from giving me information. That's a bad thing in Washington, but you find that.
I had even most reporters and others low-rating me, and it hurt sometimes when you would ask a question that you thought ought to be asked of [John] Kennedy's people. I remember distinctly being in Kennedy's press conferences, and reporters wanted so much to be liked by the
Kennedy staff and the Kennedy people, that after the press conference was over, if I were to ask a sharp, piercing question, the reporters would go out of the room on one side of the room and stay far away from me, as if to show the press secretary that they were distant from me. And I would go out the other side. [Laughter.] Well, that sort of hurt.
It hurt several times when I heard of reporters making fun of me, and some very big columnist and others accused me of trying to ask questions sharply for publicity purposes, trying to push my own way personally. I was never thinking of that. I was thinking only of trying to get an answer that I thought the American people needed to know. And the way I did it was because of the indirect obscurity of the way that reporters were acting in Washington. They were not asking questions directly enough.
Knight: Did that come from your print journalism experience? What do you think accounted for the fact that people didn't ask questions directly and you did?
McClendon: I think it came from my own heritage of liking for things to be clear and liking for things to be direct and quick, and not liking to have to go around the block to get somewhere when you could go directly to it.
Knight: How did you determine what questions you would ask?
McClendon: That's easy to do, and that's the best way in the world to do. I read the newspapers very carefully, try to see what are the big questions in the air, and I was told by my employers, "You're not supposed to duplicate the wire services. You're down here to get additional angles and additional stories." So I would naturally not ask the stories that the wire services were going to ask, which were usually on international relations or foreign affairs or the latest thing in Congress, the top thing in Congress. But I would ask a question on a subject that I thought people across the country were anxious to know and they didn't know, they didn't understand, or they wanted to know more about, a story that affected a lot of people.
Knight: You mentioned one way that reporters excluded you. Were there other specific things that you remember?
McClendon: Oh, lots of times, lots of ways. I was dis-invited from a party that I really wanted to go to, because it would have been big news for me. I was covering for El Paso Times, and the leading general's wife was going to have a party and she was a close friend of Mamie Eisenhower—Mrs. Surles. She knew me and she was from El Paso. I covered her all the time. So she invited me to a luncheon. They didn't think Mamie would come to the luncheon, and then Mamie, at the last minute, called up and said she was coming. So they called me and asked me if I would mind not coming, because they thought if Mamie saw me there, she would think that I was—she and a lot of other people had the idea that I was seeking to undermine [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. I wasn't fighting with Eisenhower; I was just trying to get some answers to questions out of him, and sometimes it embarrassed him because it showed his lack of knowledge of government, it showed his unwillingness to reply, although Ike was better at replying than many other presidents are, I assure you. So I was hurt because I couldn't go to the luncheon, and I was sorry because I wouldn't get the stories that I knew would come out of that.
Knight: Did you feel there was anybody in the journalism community who was in your corner, who supported you consistently?
McClendon: Practically nobody, except Bascom Timmons, a man for whom I worked and had the greatest respect. He had been here for many years. He said I should go to all press conferences and go to as many as I possibly could, and that started me off. He said I should get a White House pass right away, which I did. The other people in the office staff were inclined to keep me from going out the door. They said, "Oh, another woman around here! We don't want her
and she doesn't know anything, and we don't care anything about her, and she won't be here very long." One man in the office told me, before two Christmases when I worked there, that I wouldn't be there after Christmas. So that made a bad Christmas for me. He's been dead for many years, and I'm still asking questions.
But there were some things that really hurt. Some of my colleagues fed a story to Drew Pearson's column, saying that I was an arch-conservative. Well, that was the first time that it had ever come to me whether I was one thing or another. [Laughter.] Oh, it baffled me. But it hurt me for years. People would not give me stories or would not talk to me because they thought I was too conservative. It turns out today, I guess, I'm much more liberal than a lot of other reporters.
Knight: There were some examples I know of, of reporters who thought you were treated unfairly. Eileen Shanahan once—
McClendon: She is unusual and great. She's a marvelous person. She was working for the New York Times and she said that I'd asked a question that was puzzling to some people, but all the New York Times bureau, I understand, agreed that my question was a newsy question and was valid. Eileen wrote a letter to the editors asking if she could write a [letter to the] Letters to the Editors column being an employee, and they said, "It hasn't been done before, but you can." So she wrote this letter defending me and my question.
Knight: What was that question?
McClendon: I can't even remember to this day. I should. But it was a very valid question, and a lot of reporters didn't think my questions were good, because they didn't have the background of the country or the people. I was a small person who had had experience working on a small home town paper for some time, and I knew how people thought and did, and I was always attuned to them by reading papers. I tried to keep up with people over the country, but through the mail of congressmen. I would ask congressmen what was in their mail and what people were thinking about.
But there's one thing that always got me. A woman in a club I belonged to, a woman who was on the board, an experienced broadcast person, she tried to have the club pass a rule that any member of the club who achieved notoriety or public attention in their work should be put out of the club. Anyone who caused a commotion or anything with her work should be put out of the club. That was, of course, aimed at me only. The club did not vote along with her, so I stayed in the club, but she certainly tried to have me put out of the American Newswomen's Club. Later I became president of that club. As such, I was able to put through the purchase of a handsome clubhouse.
Knight: You didn't leave?
Knight: Have you ever regretted a question?
McClendon: Yes, and I apologized that same day in a letter to President Eisenhower. I asked him why he was out of town so much playing golf. I later wrote him a letter right away, and told him that I realized after I asked the question that he was playing golf for his health. He'd had several heart attacks and he was playing golf for his health, and he needed to be exercising. I was sorry that I had asked the question that way. He replied the same day, I think, on a lovely piece of pale green White House personal correspondence stationery, saying that it was perfectly all right, that he understood that I was trying to get a story, and I had a valid right to ask the
question, which I thought was wonderful. So I have that letter in my lock box at the bank to this day. [Laughter.]
Knight: Any other questions that you regretted asking?
McClendon: No, I don't think so. No. I've certainly had a lot of flak over some of the questions. One time I had to take in some volunteers to help me answer the mail, and I couldn't answer it all. I've had a lot of reaction from some questions. The two questions I had the most reaction from, one, I asked Kennedy about why he was naming two people, alleged security risks, to reorganize the innermost office of the State Department, where our spy list was and our secrets.
The other question was asking Mr. [Richard M.] Nixon why something wasn't done to let G.I.s who were entitled to checks from the government for going to college after Vietnam, why weren't they allowed to get their checks. They were not getting their checks. He said he thought they were. I said, "No, you're just misinformed." So he started working on it right away, and I had terrific response from that. A month later, he made a nationwide radio broadcast in which he said that a very "spirited reporter" had asked this question, it was a valid question, and he had taken action and found out that I was right. At first he didn't fire the head of the Veterans Administration, but ultimately he cleaned out the whole Veterans Administration. I'm told that about 1,500 jobs were changed because of this, an error, but it was really a stupid error in administration. Some machinery was fouled up so that the boys were really not getting their checks.
Knight: How do you feel when there are a lot of things that happen as a result of your questions?
McClendon: You feel very lonely. You come home at night. And I don't have a husband to cry on his shoulder. You feel very much alone in the world, but you think you're right, so you just really feel a little peculiar, but you suffer through it. I had a lot of people, some people ask me if I was right in questioning [Ronald] Reagan—eleven times he and I went back and forth on a question of what was he doing about the report on discrimination against women. It was in the government. He said he didn't know anything about it, and I said, "Well, you've seen it. It's been at your Cabinet meeting. You had it right there." He didn't remember it. So finally, he agreed to study it, so I shut up after that. [Laughter.]
But I had sixty-five letters, I think, from people saying that I was rude to the president, and 100,000 people, at least, must have written me and communicated with me to tell me that I was right. One father called at seven o'clock in the morning to say, "I have three daughters and I realize if you don't make this point, my daughters will suffer."
One woman wrote me and told me, she said, "We should clone you." I wasn't quite sure. [Laughter.] Then a man got out of a car downtown on the street. I was walking along on the sidewalk. He got out of the car and came up to me, and he said, "May I touch you for asking that question?" And I'm very happy over the results over the years, because just the other day I had a man introduce me, and he said, "She asked the questions that we all wish we could ask."
Knight: Does that outweigh the sense of discouragement you had?
McClendon: Oh, my goodness, it certainly does. I'm a newspaper reporter. I'm not up here just to be popular. I'm not up here just to be liked by some of the other press, and to heck with them. The Gridiron Club never paid the slightest bit of attention to me. One of my friends got me in there one time as a guest; that's all I've ever seen. I'm not going to be exalted. Katharine Graham of the Washington Post did make a lovely, beautiful tribute to me one time at a meeting,
and I'm very proud of that. One of the Detroit news columnists once wrote that I was doing this only for publicity for myself, and his column was so bad, I think I could have sued him and lived off of it the rest of my life, but I didn't.
Knight: Do you enjoy the publicity that you get?
McClendon: I do not enjoy publicity. I do not. I run from it. I despise it. I hate it. I'm not here for publicity. I'm to get a job done. The only thing that I regret is that not enough people—this man just called me from Illinois about a terrific problem that deserves all my time, and I can't give it to him, I'm so overloaded with things that people call me and ask me to investigate. But I wish that I was three people, and I wish there were more hours in a day and more days in the week.
Knight: Are there any questions that you wish you had asked, that you didn't for one reason or another?
McClendon: Oh, yes.
Knight: Stories you wish you had pursued?
McClendon: Well, I wish I had pursued more adequately the overpayment of defense contractors. I asked Reagan about this, and I guess it's the way I asked the question. Anyway, he pooh-poohed me and made fun of me and said that didn't exist at all, there wasn't such a thing as defense contractors overcharging the government. Well, now we've had about fourteen or fifteen different indictments and convictions since that time, and it's all been proven right. I was right. So maybe I didn't ask the question right or in the right way to get—or maybe he was just making fun of me.
Presidents, sometimes when they don't want to answer or can't answer or they think a question is belittling their own administration in the eyes of the public, will turn on the reporter and make fun of the reporter. That's done a lot. I had an example of that when [John] Erlichman was at the White House, once I asked him about daycare centers for children all over the country, which were partly federally funded. They were being cut back, and I asked him about this. His first answer was at a briefing in the White House briefing room. His answer was, "McClendon, if you were to ask me had you been to the beauty parlor today, I would say that you hadn't." My hair was going in every direction and I hadn't been to the beauty parlor. He was, of course, making it a point to make fun of me. Well, that afternoon, he came up to me out on the White House grounds and kissed me on the cheek. Ugh! [Laughter.] Later on, in Santa Fe he came to a party in my honor given by my cousin, Mrs. Anne Croy. So you know, privately they'll be nicer to you, but publicly sometimes they really make fun of you.
Knight: You've been critical of the White House press policies. What are the most glaring offenses and problems, you think, in the press policies at the White House?
McClendon: Secrecy. Secrecy. Disgusting secrecy and the attempt to cover up something the boss has done or not done, and try to make him always look very, very much like he's king and he's God, and we should not even attack him or ask him a question. That I deplore very much. Also, I deplore the fact that they don't give direct answers. You can't get an answer out of them at all. If they say they'll go look it up and tell you later, they never do.
Knight: Who was the worst offender in that regard?
McClendon: Several of them have been very bad offenders about this. I think poor Larry Speakes, I think he was a victim. I think he only had what they would tell him, or they wouldn't tell him very much. Larry Speakes was one who was pretty bad about this. Lyndon Johnson
insisted on people not telling people a lot, and his men really didn't want to be in that position. But I think Jody Powell, under Carter, was pretty bad. I think Jody didn't really know a lot about government. One time he said he thought he might go over to the Capitol and visit. I said, "Jody, let me give you a tour of the Capitol and the Congress." But he never did.
Knight: You think you could have helped him?
McClendon: Ron Nessen, one time, came in and he was lambasting a venerable congressman whom I have known, who had fifty years' service, who was a great man, Wright Patman. He was lambasting him without knowing of Patman's accomplishments for the people. I thought that was terrible, so I told him about it later. [Laughter.] It doesn't do any good to tell them that they're doing things wrong. Of course, many times they're doing what they're told to do.
Knight: Who are the best people at the White House you've worked with?
McClendon: I think Marlin Fitzwater is one of the best secretaries I've ever seen. Jim Hagerty, under Eisenhower, was great. He was a newspaperman with experience. I'll never forget, Jim, one time I asked him a question, if it was true that this deputy president, Sherman Adams, at that time—that's what he was called, assistant president and deputy to the president, I asked, "Is it true that he's accepting gifts from industrialists in New England?" He said, "Oh! Couldn't be true. Couldn't be true. I'll look into it," and found out later on it was true. So Sherman Adams lost his job as number-two man in the White House. He went back to obscurity in New England, and no one ever heard of him much anymore, and he finally died.
I think Pierre Salinger tried to be a good press secretary, but they railroaded Pierre. Kennedy's people would put out a trial balloon and leak it to the New York papers, and then for two days they'd deny it, and Pierre would have to deny it all that time, and then they'd come around and admit that they'd done it.
Knight: Were you ever involved in anything that you think was purposely leaked to you? Do you think you ever were used in that way?
McClendon: No, no, no. They don't leak to me. I wish sometimes they did. It would be a lot easier. My life would be a lot easier if they did, but I've always been on the side of those people who were not getting things easy. It's very hard sometimes. Today they leak. You go to the briefing in the morning. You spend the time and money to go down there at the briefing and you get nothing. In the afternoon, they call up different biggies in the pressroom and give them stuff. Leak, see? I'm very much opposed to undemocratic press secretaries and undemocratic press activities. I'm very disturbed about the way George Bush has a few reporters in all the time whenever he wants to, and I think this is the wrong way to do it. He has a lot of press conferences, but then he has so many of these sessions with reporters privately, that gives a few people a break.
Knight: There have been examples of other presidents who have also had a few reporters close.
McClendon: Lyndon Johnson was terrible. Lyndon Johnson loved to manipulate the press, and he was always trying to. He made two people columnists by telling the publishers, "I will give them stories every day." And they were great columnists. One of them is still a columnist. One of them faded away right away when Lyndon left.
Knight: What do you think you would do if you became one of the favorites?
McClendon: I have often thought about that, if anybody offered me a job or anything like that. I don't think I would want to take it. I don't think I would be comfortable in it at all. I was a WAC public affairs officer once, and I apparently had the wrong attitude. My attitude was to be
helpful to the press and tell them everything I could and help them get their stories, and other people thought we were just up there to try to talk well about the boss and the organization and say good things only. So I didn't get the top upcoming—I was voted by a survey as being the best person for this top information job, a survey of men in uniform, correspondents, professional men. But I didn't get it because I guess I was talking too much or something. Anyway, I didn't get the job.
Knight: I know I would feel envy if I saw other people getting access to stories that I couldn't get.
McClendon: Yes, yes. It makes you feel very—you feel like it's very unjust. It is unjust. It's not right for people. Of course, being invited to a lot of big parties sometimes, dinner parties, quiet little dinner parties where the leaking is done at the table for your benefit, that makes life easier for you to get your story, too.
Knight: You don't socialize with other journalists a great deal, do you?
McClendon: No. I see no point in it. After all, I mean, I talk on the telephone to two or three that we trade our secrets with every day. I talk on the telephone to Malvina Stephenson several times a day. She's a woman who was here as a journalist when I first came, and she's very adequate, but sometimes she dulls my ego considerably by making fun of me. [Laughter.]
Knight: You've said laughter has followed you throughout your career.
McClendon: Yes, that's right. I'm afraid so. Well, I started off when I was in junior college acting as Shakespeare's character Touchstone. [Laughter.] I don't mind being laughed at, really, as long as I think I'm right. [Tape interruption.]
McClendon: I think part of this business, even if everybody else is criticizing you and there's a lot of flak about whether you've asked the right question or whether you should have asked a question at all, I think a lot of that independence of the press' attitude is consciousness that I have a lot of people with me over the country, more maybe so than the press corps in Washington. But also it stems from my life. I came from a family that were feeling the effects very definitely of the Civil War, and they always felt that they were right. [Laughter.] So I guess I grew up thinking that we were right, regardless. So we had the courage to go ahead and try. Of course, we were not right in the Civil War with regard to slaves. That's been a bugaboo of my life, the horror, thinking that my family had slaves, and I've tried every way in the world to make it up to black people. I do a lot of work for and with black people today.
Knight: You said that you're a crusading journalist.
Knight: How do you feel about that? A lot of reporters work to be objective, and you don't.
McClendon: Well, it's not a question of being objective. You're objective when you're a crusading reporter, but you can be a crusading reporter for the public good, for the public interest. I'm not writing for any special interest. I'm not crusading for some special thing that will benefit me or make me richer or help a few little people. I'm crusading for the society and the country and people in general. I'm always trying to do something I think will be better for the public interest.
Knight: Do you think that's a type of journalism that has faded over time? Did there used to be more people like you?
McClendon: A few. A few. Not so very many. There was a man in Texas who was a great crusader, and he was shot. Then I had a boss who was a great crusader, and he gave me my first job, Carl Estes, in Texas. He was always crusading editorially, and he crusaded for some special interest jobs, too, which I wouldn't go along with. But I learned you can crusade for the public good.
My first crusading job was to get a better milk standard for the people of Columbia, Missouri, when I was a student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. My second crusading job was trying to get a hospital for people in East Texas, at Tyler, Texas, who had a tremendous oil boom on and surging population increases, and they needed a hospital.
Knight: You also said that you prefer covering Congress to the White House. Why is that?
McClendon: Definitely. Because it's people. It represents people and it is not just one ruling power that's so strong that it's keeping secrets from people and trying to dominate people. The Congress, I really truly love. I think that you can get more justice out of Congress than you can out of the White House or the Supreme Court. Our people in this country don't realize how much they owe to Congress. I know they've done some dumb things collectively and individually, but all in all, as the late Speaker Sam Rayburn used to say, "Congressmen are just as good as the people who sent them here." But I think they, overall, are trying to help people, and each congressman's office has a caseworker who can call up and use the congressman's name and get more things done.
For example, when I was a WAC, I became very ill of pneumonia in sort of a rooming house here. I was just a simple little WAC, and I needed to get in a hospital real badly, and I couldn't get in a hospital. Nobody would pay any attention to me. So my congressman found out about it. I didn't ask him; he found out about it. He called the hospital and demanded that they take me, and they did.
Knight: Today, as well as other times that I've read what you've written and what you've talked about, you do seem to be in the situation of having to defend yourself a great deal.
McClendon: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I'm accustomed to that and it really doesn't bother me.
Knight: It doesn't really? I've heard you say it does bother you, and I've heard you say it doesn't bother you.
McClendon: It bothers me that it kind of hurts me that I have to do it, and I think it's a shame that I have to spend the time doing it. But if I think I'm right, I would go right straight ahead with what I was doing.
Knight: How are you able to keep in touch with what you call the average taxpayer when you've spent all your time in Washington?
McClendon: I don't spend all my time in Washington. I go out of Washington as much as I possibly can, and I talk to people when I go out, spend several hours or maybe one or two sessions with people in groups. Then I check the congressional mail and I check over a wide area of the country, different offices. Even offices that I don't usually cover, I'll call and check about their mail. But I try to get myself with each delegation, as many delegations as I can, who come to Washington, and I ask those people, "Why are you coming here? What are your problems back home? What do you think?"
One of the first offices I covered in Washington was U.S. Senator Tom Connally of Texas. His secretary used to do a great favor for me. He used to let me have huge batches of mail, that I could read the mail as long as I didn't use the name of the person. I was reading to see what
were their problems. Why were they writing Washington? When I know what the people's problems are, then I can cover a story in Washington much better and maybe write five stories instead of one.
Knight: What is the range of the number of papers that you've covered over time? How many, average, are you writing for at any given time?
McClendon: At one time I had quite a few papers. I had them in California and Texas and New Hampshire and Massachusetts and Vermont. I think that range of papers. It's just like anything else. When management dies or management changes and another man comes in, you may or may not be kept on. As I heard a very distinguished man, Bascom Timmons, once say, "You have to always be trying to get more business because you never know when somebody's going to pull the rug out from under you."
Knight: So how many papers do you write for right now?
McClendon: Not nearly enough. [Laughter.] I'd like to write for a lot more. No, the number of my papers is down now because of mergers and buyouts. The press has become so many big chains. I'm glad I don't work for them. If I worked for a big bureau or something like that, I'd probably have to be a specialist on one subject, and I love being a generalist. I'm criticized a lot by my colleagues who know my work, who say, "You just try too many subjects. You're working on too many subjects." But I like that. I want variety.
Knight: Do you feel like you can keep up and be accurate on all those subjects?
McClendon: You can certainly be accurate on four or five or six at one time.
Knight: You haven't worked for a single newspaper since your early days in Texas. Did you consciously make that decision when you opened your own news service, that you didn't want to work for one paper?
McClendon: Oh, no, no. I wanted to work for anybody who'd hire me. I needed clients badly. I was looking for everybody. Oh, no.
Knight: Do you think, though, that working for numerous papers has affected your ability to be independent?
McClendon: Broadened me, made me independent, broadened me, and kept me active and kept me better informed. It's been wonderful. Another thing, though, it's very nice, because when you work for several different papers, the boss is distant from you. No one boss will chew you out or be as nasty to you as if you were only employed by him. I've noticed that distance has a lot to do with it, too. [Laughter.]
Knight: How's that?
McClendon: Well, distance is better, being this far away from your editors. I don't talk much to editors and I try not to let them know too much about my philosophy or how I'm thinking, because as sure as [you do that] you'll have somebody differ with you. So it's just as well not to talk so much when you're talking to employers. [Laughter.]
Knight: Does your work get very heavily edited after you send it out to the papers that you work for? Do you think changes are made?
McClendon: Not so much heavily edited. I've never been considered a great writer. I'm more of a getter of news, and I'm not a beautiful writer. Some people are just beautiful writers.
Sometimes they change my leads, but they don't usually change my facts—ever. And another thing I do, I try to keep ahead of the bosses. I try to figure out what will be the problem there, when it will be, and I call them and tell them that I'm working on this story which concerns you. They say, "Oh, yeah. You're already on it? That's good. Go ahead," they will say. I got very few queries in my life, considering the time I put in as a reporter, but this was often because I anticipated the query and called them and told them that I was beginning to work on the story. That's better, I think, far better. Many times they don't know they've got a story here, and you do. That's from keeping up with the news and developments.
Knight: Have you ever gotten into difficulties with editors to the point where they essentially fired you?
McClendon: Oh, yes. Oh, my gosh, yes. Oh, my gosh, yes. I was first fired on this paper that I worked for for eight years, because they told me not to write any more stories about a huge industrial development that we'd been covering very closely. Well, I couldn't get in touch with the editor, and a new development came in that I thought was very newsworthy. So I wrote the story.
Knight: This was in Texas?
McClendon: Yes. And he fired me just like that, and I guess he had a right to. It's like Truman and MacArthur. [Laughter.] Here I had disobeyed his orders.
Then I was working for a man. Lyndon Johnson was in the Congress, and a man was coming to Washington. He was running for governor of Texas, and Lyndon Johnson did not—let's see. I'm a little ahead of my story. This man was a political figure in Texas. It was an opponent of Lyndon Johnson's. Let's put it that way. Lyndon didn't want him to be covered up here by the press, and he didn't want him to be known. So he began to tell all the press up here that this man was coming and this man was bad news and this man was terrible and he was horrible and all this. So most reporters didn't cover the man when he had a press conference. I thought that was not the right way. I thought he should have a chance to be heard. I knew he was a distinguished Texan, and I went to hear him and covered the story. I wrote a story saying just what the man said, not slanted one way or the other, but just what the man said. Of course, the man said things in his own behalf.
I was fired immediately by the Abilene Reporter News and I made them put it in writing as to why I was fired. They said because they differed with that man; they were for Lyndon Johnson, and it was against their editorial policies and, therefore, that's why they did it.
So I've had some other experiences being fired. Lyndon had me fired from two of my big papers right after he became president. He called my boss and told him, he said, "I can't do my job and take that woman's questions. So if you'll please get rid of her, get her away from here." I was covering the White House very closely. He said, "I want you to give it to Les Carpenter." And so I said, "Why give it to Les? Les hadn't been down here in the last two or three days. I've been covering this man adequately." Anyway, I lost those two papers. But the same management kept me on. Les told them that he would take the job only if they would leave me on two of their smaller papers, at the same pay. He knew that I'd tell everybody in town why I lost the two larger papers. [Laughter.] So he said, "Leave her with two smaller papers at the same salary," which they did.
I had a boss call me one time and said, "Look, I'm going out of the country and I'm going to Europe. I don't want you to write a thing about Lyndon Johnson while I'm gone. I have to edit your copy and be careful that you don't say anything bad about him. I want to be sure that you don't write anything about him while I'm gone, so I can relax and enjoy my vacation. I'll give you a bonus if you'll do it."
Knight: Did you?
McClendon: I said, "Well, I guess if that's the way you put it, your orders are that I'm not supposed to write, and you're the editor. I guess that's what I have to do." But I had other papers that didn't give me those orders, and I wrote for them whatever I thought I should write. Anyway, I found out years later that this chain of papers had made a deal with Lyndon in his early political days where they would only carry stories that were favorable to him, never anything adverse. That was the reason for it.
Knight: He was able, it sounds to me, to play right into the competition that you had with Les and Liz Carpenter.
McClendon: Anyway, nobody made definite organized plans like that, but that's what sort of happened.
Knight: Tell me more. You've talked a little bit about it in the past. Tell me more about that relationship that you had with the Carpenters.
McClendon: The first time I saw Les, I got him a job on the bureau that I worked for. He had just come out of the navy and he had a back problem and he needed a job. So they told him there was no job available, and I ran down the hall and told him that I knew pretty soon there was a job coming up right then, so why didn't he apply for that. So he did, and he got it.
Then they put me in a room to work where Les and Liz and I were working in the same room, and I worked there a month not knowing that they had acquired my competitive paper in one town in Beaumont, Texas. They had acquired the competitive paper in the afternoon and were working for them, and all the time I was working in the same room. When I would call these people or get a story for my morning paper, they would know it. They didn't tell me. [Laughter.] So that was a shock.
Knight: So what was your response?
McClendon: Well, I was certainly upset when I found out about it, but I learned my lesson of not letting anybody hear what I was saying on the phone or what I was doing. Of course, I couldn't do anything about it. We were all three working in the same office and they didn't tell me. So we were competitors there for some time.
Knight: What was the basis for the competition. Both from Texas?
McClendon: As a matter of fact, both papers were owned by the same concern, but the staffs were highly competitive, trying to scoop each other every day. I had a lot more background for Washington and for the paper, because Liz and Les had never lived in that town. I had lived there and worked on the paper before. So I was feeding them some good information every day on the telephone. [Laughter.]
Knight: And they were the recipients of some of the newspapers that had dropped you during Johnson's administration.
McClendon: This was before the Johnson period.
Knight: This was before, but later on they got the papers that you had lost.
McClendon: Yes. But these were different concerns altogether, different bosses, different companies.
Knight: But later on, under Johnson?
McClendon: Under Johnson, yes. I lost another paper under Johnson. I was for seventeen years correspondent for the San Antonio Light as a regional correspondent. They had a bureau in Washington, a national bureau, and they covered the White House and Capitol. So they told me just to stay out of the way of the national bureau, and I covered hordes of information about Texas and Texas congressmen all for San Antonio Light. We got along famously, and we just did a nice job, I think.
All of a sudden, I was told I was out. I had been told that Johnson was in the hospital and while he was in the hospital, the Light thought he had cancer. They told me to follow his condition very closely and find out what was going on. I went out to the press conferences at the hospital, and Bill Moyers was the press secretary. I asked him several questions, more than other reporters. Bill came to me afterwards and said, "What are you doing? Why are you asking so many questions? Why are you so interested?"
I should not have told him, but I said, "The Light told me to follow his condition closely and get everything I could." I was fired that afternoon.
The firing was not done by the San Antonio Light. The editor told me there, he said, "You were doing a good job for us. I thought you did a very good job. I know nothing about it." The bureau in Washington had not known anything about it. They told me they didn't do it. I presume it was done from New York, where Johnson had an almost daily talk with a man on the Hearst paper in New York, with whom he was very friendly. I presume that they did it. Hearst had another bureau person out there covering Johnson at the hospital, too. But I would have given more personal, localized information to my paper. But I lost that paper, and that was a darn good paper. I loved it. So that's four papers I lost through Lyndon Johnson.
Knight: Directly because of your coverage?
McClendon: Directly because of my coverage of him. Directly because of his action. I lost the papers because it wasn't that I was inaccurate in my reporting; it was because I was covering stories, that I was writing stories that Lyndon didn't want written.
Knight: Did that ever happen with any other presidents or people that you had covered?
McClendon: Oh, no. Oh, no. Not at all.
Knight: It was because of his relationship with the press from Texas.
McClendon: It was Lyndon's personal management agreement that he had with two different newspaper types. He was very close to the top Hearst people and he had cultivated that relationship. Then in his early days of politicking, he had made this agreement with two chains of papers in Texas that they were never to carry anything adverse to him.
If you covered Lyndon Johnson, everything did not come out just praiseworthy of Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon couldn't understand that. He said, "You're my friend and you've been around me a lot, and I know you very well. Why is it you would ever write anything that was unfavorable about me?" Well, I wasn't just out to write anything unfavorable about him; I just covered him for what he did.
Knight: Let me switch gears just a little, because I think another part of your life that we've talked about, but we haven't talked about in this period, was how did you manage child care and working—how many hours a week did you average?
McClendon: Well, I work longer hours now than I did then because I had to take time off for the child, some time off on Saturdays and Sundays and at night. But I always saw that the child was taken care of. She was never neglected. She was never away from me one night. She was not put in a foster home. She wasn't about to be. She wasn't put up for adoption, although a lot of people urged me to do that. She was not turned over to my family, and that's one reason why I didn't go back to Texas, because I wanted to rear her away from just receiving family advice all the time.
I reared her by hiring whom I thought were good people to take care of her during the day and spending most of my money on their salary, and then putting notices on the home bulletin board. I would type out instructions every day of what to do, when to do it at a certain time, and tell them where I could be reached. Then, of course, I would call home every now and then to see if things were going all right. But I wrote every morning before I left. I wrote instructions for the day, about her feeding and her formula and everything. Largely it was done by telephone. [Laughter.] By telephone and typed instructions on the wall and good people.
I still have some friendships with some of the people that I hired to take care of her, and I found one woman who had a little boy who she had to take care of, and she had no place to live, a very fine woman. I put her in the house with the little boy, gave them the best of the accommodations, of course, and I slept in a little dining room alcove and did the best I could. My child, she had very good care, excellent care. Then when I moved out in a suburb where there were some very fine families, some of the families out there helped me. So I've had very good luck.
One time I couldn't find anybody to take care of the child, and I had to go to work. If I didn't go to work, I would lose the job. So all the people had turned me down. When I first got home from the hospital, I had a woman trained and geared, and the woman had left town, so I had to get up and bathe the baby—the first time. I'd never bathed a baby. And once I couldn't get anybody to help at all. Somebody told me to call the American Red Cross. I called them and they sent me a black nanny for a week, who was wonderful. And by that time I had gotten straightened out. They wouldn't let me pay them a thing.
Knight: So did you have live-in help most of the time, or people that came for the day?
McClendon: I tried always, if I could, to have live-in help. Sometimes a woman would be there to live in during the week, but she'd be away for weekends, and that left me with the baby on the weekend, but I didn't have a moment to myself. I would be coming in the house and she'd be going out the door. She'd barely leave me instructions about what had happened to the child, and she'd be gone for a couple of days. So it was always that way. But I could read and study and write, too, if I wanted to, while the child was asleep at night.
Knight: It must have been a struggle financially, because journalism has never paid that well.
McClendon: It was. It was definitely a struggle, but I made it. Finally, with some family help, I was able to get a house in a nice suburb away from apartment living in Washington. I was a little afraid of that with a child. So I got a nice house with nice neighbors, and that was a great help.
Knight: If you had to raise her all over again, is there anything you'd do differently?
McClendon: Of course, I would have liked to have spent more time with her, but as one of my colleagues said, "I do declare! If I had a child, I'd stay home with her."
I said, "Well, I'd stay home with her, too, if I didn't have to support her and work to support her and keep her."
I suppose we all do the best we can under the circumstances. I saw that she had good care and good doctors and good schooling, and she did have very fine schooling. One of my editors sent her to summer camp one summer, which was nice, and some of my family helped me. My brother helped me very much with her schooling, which was great, and he helped me to obtain a house. So she had wonderful schooling. Now she's a very well-educated, beautiful young woman.
Knight: Did having her have any career consequences for you? Were there jobs you didn't get because they knew you had a child?
McClendon: Well, one time she had come downtown to see the Santa Claus parade. Being a woman, I couldn't get an office in the Press building, because at that time they didn't let women in the [National] Press Club. So the only way I could get facilities in the Press building was to share an office with a man who was a member of the Press Club. I was sharing this office, a small, narrow office, with two loud-mouthed men, one in the front and one in the back. I was doing as well as I could at this desk. She had come to town for the Santa Claus parade. I always saw that she did everything very normally, very traditionally.
So she was sitting on my lap at my desk when three executives of a big paper I had worked for for years in Texas walked in. They were trying to decide whether to keep me or the Carpenters. They were going to consolidate their coverage in Washington under one reporter. They were trying to decide whether to leave it with me or give it to Les Carpenter and his wife. They had the other paper. I had the morning paper and they had the afternoon paper. So Les, being a member of the Press Club, he had just obtained a beautiful new office that had just been painted, and he and Liz were going to operate together a bureau. I think before that, they'd been operating separately. Anyway, it looked like it was a great deal: two for one in one office, freshly painted, neatly organized and well arranged, and my situation. So I lost my paper, which was a paper that I had worked for for years. I really felt like I had contributed a lot to the town's development because of my background in knowing their problems. So it was quite a blow.
Knight: Were you interested in remarrying?
McClendon: Oh, yes. I started to four or five times. Once I was going to marry a man who was a Texan. My child pointed out to me that when my back was turned, he tried to burn her with cigarettes.
Another time I was going to marry somebody and she didn't like him, so I didn't marry him.
I was really in love with a man I'd met, who was married, who was in the war, and I had sent him back to his wife a dozen times or more. But I dated a lot, went to a lot of functions. [Laughter.]
Knight: Why are you laughing?
McClendon: I was thinking about one funny instance. I had to stay home. I was going to have a date but I couldn't go anywhere because I had to stay with the child. I was living way, way out in the suburbs, and this very distinguished reporter, a charming man with great wit, finally found me. As he came up to the door, he said, "Why didn't you tell me you lived in Baltimore?" But anyway, I managed. I had some very charming dates.
Knight: I read that recently you said you'd still be interested in getting married.
McClendon: Absolutely. I am right now. But I guess they wouldn't want me this old. I've had two new boyfriends in the last two weeks; three, as a matter of fact. They're all younger than I am, but they've all agreed that whenever I need to go anywhere or want to go anywhere, just to call them up and they'd be glad to take me. I had a charming Irish date for the St. Patrick's Day parade, where I was the guest of honor Sunday.
Knight: Sounds good to me! [Tape interruption.]
Knight: One of the things we're asking people about, because we know this has changed over time, is their own view of journalistic ethics. Have you had a certain code that you've lived by?
McClendon: I certainly have. I live by the code of the journalistic creed of the University of Missouri. Walter Williams wrote the journalist's creed. I think it's in bronze at the National Press Club. It's also on my wall. It's on many, many places. I go by that, where he says right at the beginning, "I believe that the public journal is a public trust," and I certainly have followed that through the years.*
*The Journalist's Creed:
I believe in the profession of journalism.
I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are to the full measure of their responsibility trustees for the public; that the acceptance of a lesser service is a betrayal of this trust.
I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy, and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.
I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.
I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.
I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he should not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one's own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of others; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends.
I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of journalism is the measure of its public service.
I believe that the journalism that succeeds best—and best deserves success—fears god and honors man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers, but always unafraid, is quickly indignant of injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the claim of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance, and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today's world.
Walter Williams, Dean, School of Journalism, University of Missouri, 1908-1935.
Knight: Tell me about some experiences you've had with anonymous sources. Do you have a point of view about how you deal with "anonymous sources"?
McClendon: I try my best to get them on the record. I try to argue with them into going on the record. I've gotten lots of people to go on the record who were not going to otherwise. You can do that lots of times.
McClendon: Well, you just try to persuade them that it's not going to hurt them, that it really is for the public good and it would be better if we quoted them. I realize when you get into the government, you don't quote the government bureaucrats, especially if they're lower-level people who would be fired right away if they were quoted. They can't be quoted because their interpretation of the office might differ a little bit with their boss, or he might think so, or he might not want the story out. So I respect that all the time. But even then, I try to go on the record as much as possible. A lot of people in Washington, a lot of reporters think that you can't go on the record so much.
Several reporters started small groups for a study of press conferences, and they were background sessions only, which means that you didn't quote the person who was giving you the information. Well, I thought that was silly, and I started McClendon Press Briefing Group once for women journalists to try to get them better acquainted, to give them more opportunity to meet officials in the government, top officials. As a group, we would have them come before us for press briefings.
Knight: When was this that you put this group together?
McClendon: Oh, years ago. We ran it for, I guess, about five years. The slogan was "Everything is On the Record." We would not take a man unless he agreed to have it on the record. Senator [Barry] Goldwater once tried to get us very strongly to put it off the record, and we just said, no, we wouldn't take him. Later on, he agreed to give it to us on the record. You can talk many of these people into doing it on the record if you present it to them and tell them you're not going to take it the other way. Half the time, they don't have to go off the record; they just think they do. But this worked. I had a lot of reporters tell me it wouldn't work, I couldn't do it, but I did. We grew to about sixty-two members and finally had to include men, because it wasn't right just to have women. There were complaints, so we included men.
We were doing very well, but we finally just got to the point where I just quit. It was too much effort and it took a lot of money to get out notices and that sort of thing. We charged very little, charged a very low fee, so that more people could come, and all the networks and all the wire service stations wanted to be in on it in case that sometime they would miss a story.
We had the only press briefing that J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. [Federal Bureau of Investigation] had ever had in Washington, up till that time, and I think the only press briefing with women. It lasted for two hours and forty-five minutes, and that's when he called Martin Luther King a liar. One of the girls didn't think the press conference would be very important, so she didn't attend. She got in a really bad way with her boss. And one girl attended, but she didn't think everything there was so terribly important, so she didn't write such a hot story, and she got fired. We had people calling us all over the country, 6:30 a.m. on, trying to find out more about that press conference.
So it ultimately resulted in Martin Luther King having a meeting at the Department of Justice, where Martin Luther King said, "I'm going to go in there and I'm going to tell him. I'm going to tell him!" So he went into the meeting with Hoover, and we were waiting for him when
he came out. He came out a private door. We never saw him anymore. We never got to interview him. This did create a lot of flak. We had several very good press conferences like that.
Knight: With that group that you put together?
Knight: So you pushed for on the record, but you'll take off the record?
McClendon: No. I push for on the record as hard as I can, and I tell many people, when I'm interviewing them, "Don't tell me something off the record. I don't want it." Because I may already know about it or I may know part of it, and I may be able to get the rest. So I say, "Don't tell me something off the record." But I do respect these bureaucrats that I have to call up all the time to ask for information and they say, "Please don't use my name."
Knight: Do you treat private people different than public figures?
McClendon: No, I don't see that. I don't see that at all. If it's a public question and a private person is in on it, I would try to get them on the record. And I don't see that a public person has any privacy that we should respect. I think we need to know all we possibly can about a man's record and his feelings and his personality and what he will or will not do, in order to judge him and decide what he may do, whether he will have good judgment or not. So I believe in letting the public know everything you can about a man.
Knight: Have you changed in that opinion over the years? Earlier, that was not the way. A person's private life was his private life.
McClendon: Well, from the very beginning as a reporter, I've written about private lives and I got in some trouble in my home town writing about my relatives. [Laughter.] But I've always held to that. Even one time I had a terrible experience that happened in my own family. I always thought, "What if something terrible happened to my own family? Would I insist on it being made public?" We did have a tragedy in my family once, and I won't even talk about it, but I went right ahead and did not ask that the story be kept out. The story ran.
Knight: What about gifts and free trips and things like that?
McClendon: [Laughter.] I've had loads of free trips from officials and from agencies. You don't get to do that much anymore. As for gifts, I don't like gifts. I got in trouble one time with the local papers. They said, "You made the county judge mad." I said, "Yes, but he was trying to bribe me." He had tried to bribe me with a carton of cigarettes.
Another man tried to bribe me. I had a recollection of a court case, how a man was sentenced in the court case for armed robbery, and he was asking for a review of the whole thing and he was going to get it. That would mean court officials were going to have to go out to Alcatraz for the court hearing, and they didn't want to go. They sent somebody to me and asked me if I'd take a fur coat. I said, "Hell, no. I'm not changing my story one bit." And the man got out of Alcatraz. He did not have a lawyer when he was sentenced, and the court rules laid on that he should have had a lawyer there when he was sentenced. And my story showed that he did not have a lawyer, and they were using that as a basis for review of the case.
I don't take personal gifts. I've had some people send me a box of candy that I didn't even know was coming, that sort of thing. But one time I had a gift given to me that I didn't know anything about till after it was given. Lyndon Johnson was vice president, and he summoned my daughter from her class in college to the Capitol. She didn't know why or what it was
all about. She knew Lyndon, and she was very good friends with his daughter Linda Bird. So he summoned Sally to come there, and she went. I didn't know anything about it at all. He wanted her to be examined by an eye doctor whom he was using for himself and his daughters and his closest friends and his wife, and they were all getting contact lenses. This was supposed to be a very good doctor, and he knew that Sally had very bad eyes. Sally is my daughter. So he had him prepare contact lenses for Sally. I didn't know anything about it till this was all over and she told me. So I didn't give them back.
But I used to do a lot of traveling with Lyndon. He got to the point where if I wasn't going, he would be mad at me. One time I traveled with him so much on planes, my legs were swollen and the doctor told me I had to stay off of traveling for a while. Lyndon said it was all my fault. He said, "You just don't want to go."
I said, "No, I'm dying to go."
One time he shanghaied us, we all said. He took me and three male reporters down to the ranch for a weekend, and we couldn't figure out why he was doing that or what he wanted. We were told to come down there. Of course, after we got down there, he would barely talk to us. He wouldn't sit us down and give us a big story or tell us anything. We could barely even see him.
The next day, we left the ranch and we came through Austin, Texas, and were going on out to Midland in West Texas. We came back to Austin, Texas. It wasn't until we got home the next day that we read the newspapers and found out that President Jack Kennedy had decided to take 400 troops out of the Fort Hood military base right near where we had been and send them to Oxford, Mississippi, to take part in the school segregation problem that was existing over there. It was a big story. And whether to send these troops or not was what Jack Kennedy kept calling Lyndon about during the weekend, to ask him what to do about it. They were on the phone nearly all the weekend. He didn't tell us. The whole trip was supposed to be off the record, and we didn't like that very much. We got back here, and one of the boys was so incensed at the way Lyndon had treated us, that he broke the rule and wrote the story. He got fired from a Houston paper and never got another newspaper job. He became a very fine man in the journalism business, but he worked in other things than newspapers. Never got another newspaper job. But that was a funny thing that happened.
Knight: Along the ethical lines again, you said earlier that when trying to get access to people, you would suggest that you were a friend of theirs. Have you ever posed as someone that you weren't? And what do you think about that as a mechanism for getting stories?
McClendon: Oh, I think maybe I have once or twice. We had a man in Texas who was a sheriff. We had a woman in Texas who ran a house of ill repute in east Texas, in the oil fields. She claimed that none of her girls did anything there but just dance. They danced so much that they wore out their shoes frequently, and she complained about having to buy shoes. But anyway, she wouldn't talk to any reporters. She had a very good story down there. So I had been wanting for a long time to interview her, so I went down there posing as the niece of the sheriff. She was talking to me while I was down there posing as the niece of the sheriff, whom she liked, and she talked to the sheriff. Then suddenly my cousin, a lawyer, came in and said, "Sarah, what are you doing here?" [Laughter.] Of course, that blew my cover. But anyway, it was quite a story.
Knight: Do you have a point of view about whether that's—
McClendon: I think if you have to do that, sometimes you can. I don't think that's too bad. I was trying to get a story about a lot of public activity going on down at that place.
Knight: Had you ever had any other experiences when you posed as someone you weren't?
McClendon: No, I don't think I've had the chance. [Laughter.]
Knight: But you'd do it?
McClendon: Probably. Probably. Probably. I can't disguise my voice. I've tried that, but it doesn't work at all. [Laughter.]
Knight: What's the farthest you've ever gone to get a story? You know what I mean?
McClendon: You mean in distance or you mean in trying?
Knight: I mean in trying.
McClendon: Well, when you go right to the president at the press conferences, that's the best, clearest channel you can get. The best thing I think about the reason a president has press conferences, the best thing about it is it provides a channel for a small reporter or a big reporter, anybody or any kind, who has a problem that they think the public needs to know more about, to go directly to the president. It's much different when you get the story directly from the top man than if you have to go through all these intermediaries who will stop you by giving you their version of how it should be, and try to manipulate the story to be one way or the other.
When people start trying to write my story for me, I get very suspicious and I'm very indignant. Sometimes we call on the telephone in Washington to talk to a man, and some receptionist at the telephone will say, "What are you calling about? Well, there isn't any story there. Why don't you write it this way?" I'll say, "Don't edit me, please. Don't edit my story." That makes me furious. I see a lot of that today, even more than ever. It's getting harder than ever to get through the guardians at the telephone in government offices.
Knight: What's the most work you've ever put into a story to uncover a series of facts or to get at something?
McClendon: Well, I put a lot of time in the story on the GIs not getting their checks to go to school throughout the country. I started with a secretary on Capitol Hill, who told me I should come over there and read her mail, that she was getting so much mail on this subject and it was so pathetic, and they couldn't seem to do anything about it. So then I went to three or four other offices in different states and asked them if they were getting similar mail, and I found out they were, in different parts of the country. That took quite a little time. I didn't go to California for some reason or other. I went to South Carolina and I went to Texas and I went to Ohio. I always go to Ohio because I think it's sort of a middle state.
Then I started trying to find out what was the reason for this. Why? I was up in New York covering a labor story for a Texas paper. They were very much involved in it. I heard Nixon was going to have a press conference the next day. I came back to Washington just as fast as I could and did some more investigating of the Veterans Administration, and found out that the way they read their mail over there was they just took a sampling every now and then, every now and then a sampling, so they had totally missed these complaints. They had totally missed it. Later I found out that President Nixon had been told that the situation had existed only in California. Well, they went out and corrected it in California, but they did nothing about the rest of the country. They didn't seem to know.
So then I asked Nixon this question, and I think I got more flak on that and more response on that. All over the country, the veterans just rose up.
Knight: So you did the most work on that, and you got a lot of response.
McClendon: Terrific response and results, and the results were Nixon did reply to my question. He would respond. He was very keen on trying to keep his ear to the public. I don't know why he got in all that trouble later. I can't understand it, because he was a man who was very sensitive to public opinion.
Knight: What's the story that you're most proud of?
McClendon: Well, I'm proud of that story very much, and I'm also proud of the fact that I asked Kennedy about the security people who were reorganizing the State Department. I got a letter from one of the two men involved. I got a letter from him for the first time. I think this was '62 I asked that question. And I got a letter from him in '89.
Knight: No kidding! Saying?
McClendon: One of the men. Saying that it was unjust and he was sorry I asked it and had done him a lot of harm, and I felt very badly about it, very sad about the fact that it caused him a lot of harm, but I would ask the question over again. Both of these men were being investigated by various committees at the Capitol. I lost a good source of news by asking the question. A congressman that I was very fond of, who was an excellent congressman from Pennsylvania, told me that he would make no more resources available for me because I asked this question which embarrassed Kennedy, and Kennedy had helped him get reelected, and he was going to stay by Kennedy. So I had no more access to his office or his committees. [Chuckles.] Well, you get that sometimes. You get a lot of rebuffs.
Knight: Who is on the reporting scene today that you admire?
McClendon: Reporting scene? Helen Thomas, of course, tops, the most, the best.
McClendon: She never fails to ask the question that should be asked in her field. Bear in mind she's in the international and national, and I'm more in the national and regional. She never fails to ask the questions that should be asked. She's got the nerve to press it and press it through. She never lets the White House, regardless of how nice they are to her or how bowing down to her they are, she never lets them get out from under the piercing tone of her investigation. She's very tactful. She's much more tactful than I am, and she has a nicer way of doing it. She gets around things a lot better than I do. She's far nicer a person than I am, but she's the one I admire very, very much.
I admire many people. We have wonderful reporters today, many women coming on, just great women, doing a great job, I think. I think Charlie Rose of "Nightwatch CBS" is one of the best interviewers, because he lets the person he's interviewing talk. He doesn't tell them what to say.
Of course, I just admire a lot of reporters. I think the Knight-Ridder chain is doing a tremendously good job. I like a lot of reporters there. But there are several others I don't like. [Laughter.]
McClendon: Well, I don't think they do a good job, and I have incurred their dislike because I have so said. I think that reporters should be not just trying to get another invitation to the White House dinner parties. [Laughter.] I'm afraid that some of them are.
Knight: Whose work do you think needs improvement?
McClendon: Oh, needs improvement? Well, some that I don't like are working very hard. They are hard-driving reporters, but some of them need improvement in the way they ask questions. A lot of people don't have the nerve to ask questions, don't ask questions at all. I had a very good friend of mine who covered the White House for thirteen years and never asked a question in the presidential press conference, but that was her policy. She was a marvelous reporter and she covered things very, very well. But I think reporters are today forgetting to cover the country, the United States. They've left domestic affairs completely and gone altogether international.
Knight: Why is that?
McClendon: I do not know. The pack journalism at the White House today is simply disgusting. They'll spend forty-five minutes trying to find out who set fire to the chemical factory in Libya and asking one question after another that they know the White House can't answer questions about, Iran or Contra, and never ask a question about homelessness, never a question about high health cost or poverty or how we're throwing our children into poverty and into sorrow and tragedy, and never ask questions about many of the things that ought to be asked about all the time. I don't understand it.
I am devoting my life to—these days, I have purposely made it a rule in the last two or three years to emphasize priority issues that I think are on the domestic scene, like health, health care, and women, poverty, veterans, the unemployed, blacks, homelessness, particularly. I think homelessness is the root of so much of our evil. Farmers, farmers' wives, and particularly single-women parents, and women and children who are in poverty. I think it's disgusting how poorly informed the American people are today of what is really going on in Washington.
Knight: Who do you blame for that?
McClendon: The press. I have always loved the press and championed them and defended them. I'll have to say that today we'll have to admit that the press is not—and I have heard several officials and economists say lately that they wonder why the press didn't cover the story, didn't tell them. And I think it's not so much the press' fault always, as it is the fact that certain leading officials, especially at the White House, have tried to lead the press away from those issues, away from covering domestic issues, and led them to work on something that the White House itself is especially interested in at the time, and that the White House is pushing. They'd rather talk down there about another trip with the president somewhere than ever, ever talk about what concerns fifty states. And I think it's a shame.
Knight: Do you see anybody who is following in your footsteps and asking the kind of questions that you've taken upon yourself to ask?
McClendon: Yes. I see a lot. A lot of reporters have come up to me and told me that—this last week, I had two young reporters come up and tell me, one of them said, "I just love your questions." She said, "I want you to know that I really believe in everything that you're trying to do." Well, I was amazed that anyone realized I was trying to do something. But I have a lot of reporters telling me—and I can see it in their work. Ever since Watergate, reporters have been much better at asking sharp, direct questions. They found out that reporters could have an effect on government, and they've been asking much better questions. But we need to ask a lot more questions and better questions. I'll have to tell you that there are a lot of good women at the White House asking good questions now. But nobody's paying any attention to what happens in the United States! Heck, we couldn't go overseas if we didn't have a United States! Gosh!
Knight: You've written so much about your experiences over the past fifty years. Tell me something that you haven't told, a story that's new, something that you've thought about but maybe haven't written down about any of your experiences.
McClendon: I think I have not said anything about the struggle it is sometimes to just really get a story. It's a great struggle for me, really, to get a story and insist on my ability to cover it and insist on the fact that the story ought to be covered. I don't think I've talked about that. I have said that I thought the older I got, things would lighten up and you wouldn't have to fight for everything you get. But you still have to. I have to fight every day. As a woman, I have to fight for women's rights. I have to fight for my place, to be able to be somewhere. I have to fight to get the story. I have to fight for the citizen's right to know, every day.
Knight: How will you know when it's time to quit?
McClendon: Well, I'm already seeing that I'm not as able to work as many long hours as I used to, and lately it's been walking every step with pain. But there are certain periods when I don't have pain. But as for quitting writing or quitting thinking, I can certainly use my hands and write and think and talk on the telephone. I'm doing a lot more by telephone now than walking around to the different offices, because it's just hard to walk with arthritis in my back.
But as for time to quit, I won't know the time to quit. I'm just going to keep on as long as I possibly can. I am reminded about the nun who died out here at Georgetown Visitation Infirmary. She was a great worker for women's rights. She was dying. They came in and told her there had been a big victory for women's rights. She raised up and smiled with a great smile, and then died. [Laughter.]
Knight: You'd like to go working?
McClendon: Absolutely! Absolutely.
Knight: And how do you want to be remembered?
McClendon: As an individualist who tried to do something for society, for human beings, and maybe accomplished some results. Hopefully they can see some results. But mainly as an individualist who struggled to help human beings.
It's humanity that is journalism. It really is. It's not just big business and not big money; it's people. When people talk about politics being so awful and they don't like politics, well, I say politics is people. It can be good or it can be bad, but it certainly is people. We have it going in a lot of wrong directions these days. I think there's too much money involved in elections, entirely too much, and too much money spent on advertising in elections. But we'll probably come out of it.
I think the people unfailingly, if they just could be informed, the people can make a good judgment. But when they're not informed, they certainly will make bad judgments. As Jack Kennedy used to always say, "The people have to make a judgment." Make a judgment. I always thought that was an interesting, funny phrase. But you do make a judgment.
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