By Charles E. Cohen Margie Bonnett Sellinger
April 23, 1990 12:00 PM

“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be standing at the State Department speaking on behalf of our country, I would have laughed in your face.”

She casts no vote in Congress, plays no direct role in shaping legislation. She isn’t much in evidence in that theater of intrigue, the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit. Still, she is one of the capital’s most powerful women and for the past year has been one of the world’s most visible. Why? Because almost everyone who wants the official word at Foggy Bottom or needs access to the U.S. Secretary of State must follow a direct path through the office of Margaret Tutwiler.

As the State Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs and press spokesman, Tutwiler, 39, probably knows as much as anyone in government about what boss James A. Baker III is thinking. And during the past 13 months Tutwiler has been both intimate spectator to—and informed commentator on—a cavalcade of global events, from the massacre of workers and students in China to the toppling of Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. During her time at the State Department, it has had more news visibility than at any point since the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.

Tutwiler has survived with her Southern charm intact. The onetime debutante is noted both for her unerring politeness and as one of the best-dressed women in Washington. (She wears silk dresses and soft suits, and her pearls, unlike Barbara Bush’s, are real.) But the year hasn’t been easy. Tutwiler, who came to her job with no formal foreign policy experience, has had to undertake a crash course in international politics. Some journalists still complain about her unwillingness to stray from the official “guidances” she monotones each day, but no one faults her on effort. Every morning at 6:30 she is in her office adjoining Baker’s suite, on the richly paneled seventh floor of State Department headquarters, prepping for the noon press briefing, a kind of daily oral exam, with many of Washington’s sharpest reporters watching.

If Tutwiler’s performance is sometimes less than Kissinger-esque, she readily concedes her shortcomings. “I am not and do not claim to be an expert in foreign policy,” she said in her first official meeting with reporters. “When I don’t know something, I will tell you I don’t.” For newspeople accustomed to official obfuscation, it was a refreshing moment of honesty. But it went only so far. “The depth of Margaret’s ignorance on foreign policy was pretty astounding,” says one State Department source. “Nobody could understand why she was chosen for the job.” Plunging into her task, Tutwiler recalls “studying maps and [poring over] the name of every leader of every country, the capitals, the foreign ministers, the finance ministers. I put a lot into it.” Although she still has critics, Tutwiler prefers to emphasize her strengths. “If you’re a Ph.D. and have 17 degrees, the press doesn’t care,” she says. “They like to know that you have a fair idea of the person on whose behalf you are speaking. And I do know this President and this Secretary of State very well.”

As the eldest child of a wealthy Birmingham family, Tutwiler was raised in a genteel environment that seemed unlikely to lead her to such a high-powered job. Neither her grandmother nor her mother ever worked, says Tutwiler. But her father, who managed the family holdings made in iron and coal, didn’t raise a hothouse flower of a daughter, either. When Margaret and her younger brother, Temple, got into arguments, her father would have them put the gloves on to settle their differences. “Afterwards he would always make us hug and kiss and tell how much we loved each other,” says Tutwiler.

After studying at Finch College, a now defunct New York City women’s school once attended by Tricia Nixon, and later at the University of Alabama, Tutwiler landed a job as secretary to the chairman of the state GOP. As George Bush geared up for his 1979 run for the GOP presidential nomination, she got to know the candidate close up, driving him to work in Houston. Both Bush and his campaign manager, Baker, were impressed by Tutwiler’s hard work and grass-roots political savvy. After Ronald Reagan won the nomination, Tutwiler was appointed scheduling director of Bush’s vice presidential campaign. She was named Baker’s executive assistant when he became Reagan’s Chief of Staff in 1981. When Baker moved to the Treasury Department in 1985, Tutwiler went along as his assistant secretary for public affairs, then served as his deputy on the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign.

Tutwiler’s frequent 15-hour workdays and extensive travel—on a recent Baker trip to Eastern Europe and Canada she logged five countries in nine days—leave little time to enjoy the Washington house she shares with her cat, General. But it is Tutwiler’s social life that has suffered most. She realizes that her desire to marry eventually and have children could be sidetracked by her job. “If [marriage] works out, it would be great,” she says. “If it doesn’t, I accept that it wasn’t meant to be. There are trade-offs in life.”

—Charles E. Cohen, Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington, D.C.