WASHINGTON -- With her thick Alabama drawl and halting speech, she still seems miscast as the front-line spokeswoman for President Bush's foreign policy. But as the world hovers on the brink of war, Margaret Tutwiler has become the indispensable sound bite on the evening news, the woman who articulates the government's intentions to a nervous nation.
As the voice of the State Department, Ms. Tutwiler presides over briefings for reporters that -- in theory, at least -- provide a daily update on U.S. foreign policy. The briefings are also a primary forum from which Washington, D.C., sends sometimes subtle signals to its allies and enemies.
To the uninitiated, the job may seem ridiculously easy. It consists mainly of reading statements, mostly prepared in advance by someone else, in response to questions from reporters. Frequently, she simply refuses to comment. "I have nothing more on that for you," Ms. Tutwiler is wont to say.
But in the high-stakes game of international diplomacy, a single misstep by Ms. Tutwiler can send a dangerously incorrect message that the government can never fully withdraw. For that reason, the post has always been a high-stress job. Ms. Tutwiler says that she found it terrifying at first.
Reporters who have watched Ms. Tutwiler since her debut in 1989 -- when she candidly said, "I am not, and do not claim to be, an expert in foreign policy" -- agree that her performance at the daily briefing has improved markedly, though it remains somewhat ragged. Her lilting accent and her occasional mispronunciations sometimes erode her presentation.
But there's no doubt that she has mastered other aspects of the job that often eluded her predecessors -- even those who were steeped in the lore of diplomacy.
Most importantly, Ms. Tutwiler is a thoroughgoing expert on Secretary of State James A. Baker III. As one of a half-dozen aides who are in the secretary's inner circle, Ms. Tutwiler tells the public what Mr. Baker is thinking -- and often tells Mr. Baker what the public is thinking in return.
"She has a sense of what Baker is doing, thinking or about to do," said Jim Anderson, a correspondent for United Press International who has been covering the department for 21 years. And "when she is permitted to, she expresses that," he added.
"Because the State Department is run by that inner circle of Baker and six or seven others, this is an invaluable source of information," Mr. Anderson said.
"Her weak point is that her institutional memory doesn't go back before 1989. Anything prior to that is just a black hole," Mr. Anderson said. "I wouldn't put her as the very best, but I would put her toward the high end of the scale -- although in the beginning I wouldn't have rated her that highly."
But Ms. Tutwiler is more than a source of information for the public. She also serves as a political early-warning system for Mr. Baker. One of her jobs is to spot potential flaps before they start and head them off before they can do damage.
"She is extremely good at being able to catch the drift of the way the press is going," said a State Department official who watches her closely. "She can tell when something is about to become a major issue. She has a very good sense of what will play in Peoria. She can predict how a policy will play in different parts of the United States and deal with that from a public relations standpoint. This is one of her great values to Baker."
At first glance, it seems absurd that Mr. Baker, a seasoned political operative who was President Bush's campaign manager, would need such help. But for all his political acumen, the secretary sometimes finds it difficult to make the sort of gesture that comes as second nature to politicians around the country.
For example, when Mr. Baker toured the black township of Soweto in South Africa, he seemed oblivious to a schoolyard of photogenic kindergarten students -- until after a quiet conversation with Ms. Tutwiler.
Some of Ms. Tutwiler's predecessors apparently had a much broader mandate than she seems to have in telling the public about the inner workings of the State Department.
These predecessors often "covered" the department as if they were reporters trying to ferret out information from the bureaucracy. The result was a sometimes tense rivalry between spokesmen who wanted to get information out and other officials who wanted to keep it secret.
Ms. Tutwiler is careful to say no more than Mr. Baker wants her to say. Some spokesmen suffered from divided loyalties to the secretary of state and to the public's right to know. Ms. Tutwiler has no such dilemma.
"I don't play games with you," she said, discussing her own performance with the press. "I work very hard at trying to do both [serve the public and the department]. But I never lose sight of the fact that my first and foremost loyalty must be to the president and the secretary."