As the Gulf War Rages, White House Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater Makes Sure Truth Is Not the First Casualty

updated 02/11/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 01:00AM

U.S. bombers had just begun battering Baghdad on the opening night of the war with Iraq, while in Washington, D.C., the press corps was zeroing in on its own target of opportunity, Marlin Fitzwater. The White House press secretary had just finished a third informal briefing in his West Wing office, and scores of reporters surrounded his desk, demanding to know precisely when President Bush had decided to go to war. Three stories, all technically correct but with minor variations in timing, were making the rounds. The unflappable Fitzwater flapped. "Pick whichever one you want," he said, waving his hands in exasperation. "I'll back you up."

With war—and reporters—raging, these are the times that try spokesmen's souls. "Everybody is hysterical, searching for any tidbit," says Fitzwater of his journalistic charges. "Their hunger is more than any government could satisfy." But it's his job to feed the press pack—and in balancing his boss's interests with the public's right to know, the affable, puckish Fitzwater, 48, gets high marks from working reporters for being a credible, informed insider. "What makes Marlin so professional is that he learned his craft the hard way," says Ellen Warren, White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspapers. "He plowed his way up through the bureaucracy. He's not some jerk who got his job because of his connections."

Born into a poor farming family near Abilene, Kans., Fitzwater wanted to be a journalist and worked his way through Kansas State University with jobs at three area papers. But after graduating in 1965, he followed his fiancée to her teaching job in northern Virginia and began a career in speechwriting and public relations. (Divorced in 1980, he has two children, Bradley, 19, and Courtney, 16.) Starting out at the Appalachian Regional Commission, he moved on to the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Treasury Department. In 1983 he was appointed deputy White House press secretary under Larry Speakes, and two years later Vice President Bush picked him as his personal spokesman. The two established a close rapport, and Fitzwater tried his best to burnish his boss's lackluster image by portraying him as independent, witty and forceful. Still the press continued to bash the VP for his perceived docile loyalty to Ronald Reagan. Fitzwater says he was depressed and often asked himself, "What am I doing here?"

He was stunned when Reagan appointed him White House press secretary in 1987, at the height of the Iran-contra scandal. In 1988 Bush asked Fitzwater to stay on in the new administration. "Bush is really comfortable with Marlin," says a White House source. "He knows he can count on him. In a town of overgrown egos and sharks, Marlin's a welcome respite."

There has been little relief for Fitzwater, though, since Iraq invaded Kuwait. His schedule has left him scant time to relax at his Alexandria, Va., home—where he dabbles in gardening and woodworking—or to enjoy the other fringe benefits of his $89,500-a-year job. The war has also whetted his appetite for junk food. "Saddam Hussein has two victims," he says ruefully, "the U.S. and my waistline." Some critics cite a third casualty: Fitzwater's accessibility. "He's like a turtle who pulls in his head," gripes one reporter. "Instead of saying 'no comment,' he just disappears." Fitzwater isn't troubled by the complaint. "Chances are, when I can't be found I don't want to be found," he has said. "In many ways silence is the only weapon I have, and I use it very carefully."

Paula Chin, Sandra McElwaine in Washington, D.C.

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