President Obama didn’t exactly walk away from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) during their disagreement on Wednesday on an airport tarmac near Phoenix, said one of the only people to witness the exchange up close. The president simply began talking to the other two elected officials who were there to greet him.
Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., declined to say exactly what he heard Obama and Brewer talk about during their now-infamous 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.”
The portrayal of a calm, friendly president seems to at least partly contradict what Brewer has said about the encounter in numerous interviews since Wednesday afternoon. She described the president as “tense” and said he walked away from her while she was in mid-sentence. She told a Phoenix television station she felt “a little bit threatened” by the encounter.
Obama was in the area to tour a nearby Intel chip manufacturing plant and to promote his jobs strategy. But after landing in Mesa, the president somehow ended up talking to Brewer about a book she wrote last year.
Both the governor and White House have said the discussion involved a disagreement about how the book portrayed a June 2010 meeting between Brewer and Obama. A photo of the encounter shows Brewer pointing her finger at the president after handing him a letter she had written.
“It was somewhat of an animated discussion,” Smith said on Thursday. “It revolved around the presentation of the letter…Other than that, I don’t want to get into specifics.”
Smith described the situation as an “awkward moment” but little more than that. He expected the meeting to involve casual pleasantries, not a sticky encounter. “You don’t expect to see that at the bottom of the stairs of Air Force One,” he said.
Smith was disappointed that a small dispute was getting more press than some of the region’s success stories like the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, where the confrontation took place and which has grown exponentially even in the midst of the economic downturn.
He said he was glad the president came to town to highlight Intel and wished the focus could have remained there.
“It was an honor to be able to welcome the president to Mesa, to Arizona,” Smith said, “and I hoped that this little episode between the governor and the president didn’t overshadow all the great things that are going on in the middle of this recession.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com