She was hired by CNN in 1981, and from 1985-1988 and 1991-1993 was the CNN White House correspondent. From 1988-1991 she was a Congressional correspondent. She covered the 1984 presidential campaign, including the Democratic National Convention, and the 1988 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, as well as the 1992 presidential campaign; she also covered two international summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1992, while working as a member of the White House press pool for CNN, she questioned then-president George H.W. Bush about allegations of adulterous behavior. President Bush replied: "I'm not going to take any sleazy questions like that from CNN."
Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater later said that Tillotson "will never work around the White House again."
Early on the morning of the August 11, 1992 Bush news conference in question (at Kennebunkport, Maine) CNN-Atlanta assignment editor Mike Klein faxed the New York Post story alleging President Bush's extramarital affair to CNN's Kennebunkport workspace. Klein asked Tillotson's producer Carol Cratty who would ask "The Question" about the Post story. Tillotson said she had been planning to ask a question about the Balkans, but would ask about the Post story if she was called on and no one had asked it beforehand. Klein did not wave her off.
A Presidential campaign was going on, and the Bush re-election staff often mused aloud (though not for attribution) that Bill Clinton was not suitable for the Oval Office because of questions about "family values," his "character," and his reputation as an adulterer.
Reporters were driven to the Bush family compound that day and were herded behind a rope line to separate them from the official Bush party. Before the news conference, one of Marlin Fitzwater's young press office assistants walked the rope line asking which reporter might ask about the Post story.
Before Tillotson was called on, several other reporters received the Presidential Point--meaning a question was allowed. They all asked about Middle East politics. When Mr. Bush nodded in Tillotson's direction, she asked if the President, given the importance his campaign placed on family values, wouldn't like to respond to the New York Post story claiming he'd had a tryst with his long-time assistant Fitzgerald. Mr. Bush, as quoted above, excoriated Tillotson and CNN for the "sleazy" question.
After the news conference, Tillotson joined the Presidential motorcade for a ride to Air Force One and the flight back to Washington. Assignment editor Klein reached her by cell phone to tell her she would likely be fired because his and her superiors at CNN were so angry at her question.
Tillotson was almost alone in the lower level of the White House press space on her return to Washington. Most of the White House press corps was coming home on the later press plane, not Air Force One. She heard First Lady Barbara Bush's press secretary Anna Perez coming down the stairs towards CNN's work space, loudly calling "Mary Tillotson? Mary Tillotson?" as she came.
Perez stopped at the door of the CNN booth, raised her hand in benediction and said "I absolve you," burst into a belly laugh, and left.
Late that afternoon, NBC's Stone Phillips interviewed Mr. Bush at the White House and also asked about the N.Y. Post story. The camera crew that recorded the interview later said that Phillips apologized to the President off-camera and said he was only asking the question because his bosses at NBC made him.
The next day, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater asked Tillotson why she had asked such a question. She answered that the story was in the public domain, she was covering a presidential campaign and her job was to ask such questions of the candidate she was covering. Her employers expected no less, she said.
In a book years later, Fitzwater transformed the scene: he wrote that Tillotson wept and said her bosses had ordered her to ask about Fitzgerald.