White House Groupie

Nora Ephron working on the set of her film Lucky Numbers


Nora Ephron was an iconic essayist and humorist, working for both the “New York Times” and The “Washington Post.” The most famous screenwriter of her time, Ephron wrote both “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally.” She died from a case of pneumonia in 2012, at the age of 71.



JULY 16, 1978

ONCE, some years ago, I caught Gay Talese on television explaining why he had left the newspaper business to write books. He said he had done so because he noticed that the headlines on obituaries of newspaper reporters always went something like this — “John Doe, Covered Yalta” — and that it occurred to him that he did not want to die with nothing to his credit but the events he had covered.

I remember thinking at the time that Mr. Talese was being too tough — that there was nothing wrong with a life spent covering great events. But I have just read “My Eight Presidents” by Sarah McClendon, and I think Mr. Talese may have a point. Mrs. McClendon, a White House correspondent for a number of small papers, has become famous over the years for her long‐winded questions at Presidential news conferences; now she has written her memoirs. Essentially, the theme of which is that this woman, this baiter of politicians, this troublemaker and legendary thorn‐in‐the-side, is essentially a Washington groupie, a small-town girl from East Texas who still has trouble believing that people in high places pay attention to her.

Sarah McClendon rather humorously interrogating Lyndon Johnson

They do pay attention to her — mostly because she shouts at them, very loudly. Her questions are sometimes persistent, plucky and relevant; often, though, they are uninformed and inarticulate. I suspect, in fact; that one of the reasons Mrs. McClendon’s Presidents have called on her as often as they have is that she automatically causes the viewing audience to side with the person being questioned. Also, of course, she is always good for a laugh. This has never occurred to her. Throughout her book, she guilelessly quotes remarks famous people have made about her behavior, and she seems to have no sensitivity to the ironies intended. The frontispiece of her book reproduces letters to her from Kennedy and Johnson, both of them at best condescending and both of them clearly prompted by obsequious communications from Mrs. McClendon herself.

 “I would not want to comment on the syntax and sentence structure of your column
in the El Paso Times,” writes Mr. Kennedy, “but I will say that the girl they used as your stand‐in for the photograph is a pip of a woman.” “I’m just real proud of your Texas enterprise, honey, and awfully pleased that you took the time to write me a note telling how you scooped all those big‐name, big‐shot newspapermen,” writes Mr. Johnson.

Mrs. McClendon meeting with John Kennedy

Sarah McClendon used to be viewed as a silly woman; now the consensus has changed, and she is regarded with a kind of latter‐day nostalgie de la boue and is applauded for her primitive courage and naive spunk. In many ways, she is carrying on in the tradition of May Craig: She behaves eccentrically in order to attract attention. It should be noted that this tradition is not sex‐linked and that thanks to several male reporters in the White House press corps who have picked up where Mrs. McClendon leaves off, it shows no sign of dying out.



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