Readers were upset at The Post’s description of the tarmac encounter in Phoenix on Wednesday between Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and President Obama.
Obama was on a post-State-of-the-Union tour around the country to tout his ideas and stopped off in Phoenix to visit an Intel factory. He was greeted at the airport by Brewer and other Arizona elected officials, as is normal, and there ensued an animated discussion between the two chief executives in which Brewer pointed her finger at the president.
Obama, according to the White House pool report and the Post story by David Nakamura and Rachel Weiner, at some point walked away from Brewer and started shaking hands with the other officials there.
Reporters were not within earshot so they couldn’t hear the exchange. But Brewer, afterward, did radio and TV interviews in which she described Obama as “thin-skinned,” “tense” and “disrespectful” and said that the encounter left her “breathless.”
Both Brewer and White House spokesmen agree that the president brought up the way she portrayed him in her new book, “Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure America's Border.”
The president asserted that the book inaccurately described a 2010 White House meeting between the two.
Nakamura and Weiner did not quote the other elected officials standing there, but the liberal-leaning Web site Talking Points Memo did, later. Here’s what TPM wrote:
“Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., [a Republican,] declined to say exactly what he heard Obama and Brewer talk about during their tiff next to Air Force One. But the mayor said he was standing right next to the governor when the exchange took place and Obama didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry to leave.
“There was no sense that he was running to or from anything,” Smith told TPM. In fact, he said, the president stayed and had a pleasant conversation with Smith, who’s a Republican, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat.
“It was ‘just the four of us,’ Smith said. ‘Mayor Stanton and I had a decent talk with him.’ ”
Smith did say that Obama’s encounter with the governor was “awkward” and “animated.”
Most of the e-mail to the ombudsman was critical of Nakamura and Weiner, readers saying that the story concentrated on Obama being “testy” instead of Brewer being a publicity-seeking, in-your-face kind of politician.
Here’s a typical e-mail from Thomas Goslin.
“The article ‘Obama exchange with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer reveals his testy side’ is journalistic claptrap. The authors were not privy to
the conversation between President Obama and Governor Brewer and so have no idea as to what the exchange reveals. All that is reported is
that Governor Brewer told a radio interviewer (not, apparently, the
Post reporters), that President Obama was ‘tense’ and ‘thin skinned.’
”The article then goes on to reference a series of policy disputes
between the president and Republicans, ranging from negotiations over
the debt ceiling to the appointment of Richard Cordray to head the
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with a clear insinuation that
each event is somehow an exemplar of the president’s ‘testy side.’
What remains unclear, however, is how the dispute between Gov.
Brewer and President Obama is in any way akin to policy disagreements
between the president and Republicans in Congress or how these events,
taken together, reveal with any clarity some aspect of the president’s
personality. Is to disagree akin to hyper-sensitivity?
“The article reads like a conclusion in search of facts, and fails to live up to The Post’s well-earned reputation for journalistic integrity.”
Nakamura then responded to Goslin via e-mail this way:
“Thanks for reading and for writing. However, I must take issue with the general premise of your e-mail. First, we actually have much more than Jan Brewer’s comments to the radio station to help us understand what happened — several first-hand accounts were provided by reporters at the scene who were representing the national White House press corps, including The Washington Post; Brewer granted interviews to those reporters moments after the encounter, as well as later to radio and television reporters, and she presented a consistent story.
“Also, the president’s advisers talked about the incident more than once and confirmed that he raised the issue of the book and what he felt was an unfair portrayal of him in it. There is clear evidence that the president raised the book without prompting and was demonstrably irritated. As I wrote on our blog . . . one reporter said he witnessed Obama ‘flinging’ a letter Brewer gave him into his limousine moments after he ended their discussion by walking away as she was still speaking.
“Second, each of the examples we cite do indeed deal with policy — immigration, financial industry oversight, debt management and food stamps/disaster relief. In each instance, Republicans have said they were taken aback by the president's behavior or actions, and each case shows the president reacting strongly to policies he does not agree with. As the story says, he has often presented the GOP as being obstinate and ideological to the point of paralysis and what this story demonstrates is that there is evidence, in the unscripted moments, that the president has engaged in a certain level of the same game.
“Third, and finally, the story reveals something about the president's personality in ways that the carefully stage-managed events he holds across the country, with the press kept at arm’s remove, do not. And that's worth explaining to our readers.”
I think tempers are overplayed in political reporting. The stakes are high here, and everyone has a limit to his fuse. I covered the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1990s. I used to watch John McCain blow regularly. Sometimes he was unreasonable, but sometimes he was frustrated at an admiral or general not answering his questions, McCain would pick up a stack of papers on his desk and slam them down, full force with a bang, to get someone’s attention. It worked, and the general officers invariably became more forthcoming.
Now, I wasn’t in Phoenix, I don’t know exactly what was said.
Journalism isn’t perfect in these she-said, he-said encounters. But here’s what we do know. Obama, as much as and maybe more than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is targeted constantly by his critics, often unfairly and in ugly and demeaning ways. Every president gets tired of it.
We know that the president and the two other elected officials played the encounter down. We know that Brewer played it up.
We know that of those four officials present, one has a new book out, and as The Arizona Republic reported, book sales shot up on Amazon.com after the encounter.