April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
2 years ago

Obama apologizes for quip, which some called sexist

(CNN) – California's attorney general received an apology call from President Barack Obama Thursday after he told a crowd of Democratic donors she was "by far the best-looking attorney general."

"The president did speak with Attorney General [Kamala] Harris last night after he came back from his trip," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told CNN's Brianna Keilar at Friday's briefing. "He called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments."

The remark came during a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in the Bay Area. No video cameras were allowed inside.

"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake," Obama said, adding: "She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."

The quick remark launched a thousand conversations about successful women and their looks. For some, Obama's observation brought to mind countless instances of women being judged for their appearance rather than their aptitude. But others saw something different – a harmless compliment – and wondered when it became sexist to tell a woman she's beautiful.

"They are old friends and good friends and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general's professional accomplishments and her capabilities, and I would note that he called her in those same comments brilliant, dedicated and tough. She is all those things," Carney continued, noting her work on mortgage settlements.

Obama "fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace," Carney continued.

MORE: Getting to know Kamala Harris

Harris' communications director Gil Duran said in a statement, "The Attorney General and the President have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him."

The 48-year-old Harris was elected to her post in 2010, after serving as district attorney in San Francisco. She has a law degree from the University of California and went to college at Howard. Her tenure in law enforcement has included a tough stance on hate crimes, and the unusual prosecution of parents of truant children. Harris is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, and many wonder whether she's considering a bid for California governor in 2018.

Those attributes, some said, should have been on Obama's mind, not her looks.

"Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse," Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine.

"It's not a compliment," Chait continued. "And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he's setting here is disgraceful."

Others cast the remark as another example of Obama fostering a "boys club" attitude among his aides, who have been accused in the past of creating a bad work environment for women.

"It actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women," former Obama aide Anita Dunn said in a book on the Obama administration, "Confidence Men," by Ron Suskind.

That perception was fueled earlier this year as Obama made a fresh round of Cabinet appointments for his second term. The first names he picked – Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, John Brennan, and Jack Lew – were all white men.

But while many shook their heads at Obama's remark in California, many others were equally confused at the backlash.

The prevailing sentiment: when did complimenting a woman – particularly a friend - on her looks become sexist?

"Judging by some of the comments I've seen on Twitter you'd swear the president was guilty of luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn't know," Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post. "If I thought for one moment that's what was going on, you better believe I'd hammer him for it. But that's not the case here. Far from it. So lighten up, people."

A third set wondered about all those other attorneys general in the country, smarting from the knowledge the president might be sniffing at their looks.

While no one argued with Obama about Harris' status as the "best looking attorney general" Thursday, a colleague back home might take issue: Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau is Delaware's attorney general, and his name means "beautiful" in French.

What do you think? Was Obama's remark sexist? Or just a compliment? Sound off in the comments section below.


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (1,288 Responses)
  1. rams3144

    He's taking private lessons from Biden.

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  2. Peter

    I don't support Obama and I wasn't offended. This country needs to lighten up regardless of political view.

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  3. sly

    wow, much more important things to worry about these days than Obama calling a woman beautiful.

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  4. Juanito

    I doubt the content of the message matters as much as who its coming drom. I think liberals would have been incensed if Bush had made those comments. We ALL would've shivered and groaned if Bill Clinton would've said it.

    Repubs won't know how to position this into an attack that won't make them look foolish.

    Obama can, and has, gotten away with a lot more(fast and furious, bengazi) than this. He's Teflon and has the press to thank for that.

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  5. Marc

    Oh gimme a break already. They've been friends for years. And he can't compliment her?

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  6. cristian saileanu

    has america gone mad???
    are you allowing feminists to destroy the country???

    April 5, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  7. JacinJax

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," As far as attributes go, he got them in the correct order.

    April 5, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  8. John

    I said many times to women that they were beautiful and they replied with thank you. So where is the problem? Are we becoming too much religious? What do we say to a woman that she is beautiful then? That you are not beautiful?

    April 5, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  9. KeninTexas

    This is a tempest in a teapot. Anyone who got upset over Obama's comment, needs to get a life.

    April 5, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  10. Kelly

    This is ridiculous. He's not taking away from any of her accomplishments by including this in a very high compliment. It sounded like more of a joke to a friend, comparing her to the stuffy old men in similar positions to hers.

    April 5, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  11. Nanor

    Whats weird with this whole situation is that the person who he actually said the compliment to didn't think there was anything wrong with his comment. So who are we to judge? I think its pretty ridiculous that people have taken this comment to this extreme.

    April 5, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  12. dwight

    Me makes a good point. Everything is up to scrutiny no matter how silly it is. I'm sure that NOW would have had a problem with it if it was said by any body on the right. I think my wife is beautiful, despite how smart she is.

    April 5, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  13. Romney is Still NOT My Hero

    @Dean

    Typical black man. 70% of black children are born out of wedlock. What makes anyone think that Obama is any different----------------------

    Congratulations on being the winner of the most ignorant post. Thanks for playing.

    April 5, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  14. Lee

    All of you, on both sides, shut the hell up. Worry about something that truly matters or next thing you know, when you're suddenly feeling out of sorts, it will be because Kim Jong Un just slid a missile up your rearends. This "issue" is utterly ridiculous let it go.

    April 5, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  15. snagglepuss

    bch... You're right. Now that I look at the pic, she does look like an Irish Setter. And ME hit the nail on the head. "Political correctness" is in the end.........political.

    April 5, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  16. Jim in PA

    In updated news, Obama has issued an apology to her. I wonder how that went: "I never meant to insinuate that Mr. Harris is in any way attractive..." D'oh! She's a woman, dude. You can't win this.

    April 5, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  17. Anthony

    What's our country coming to when complimenting an attractive woman for her looks is deemed offensive?

    April 5, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  18. Charlie Brown

    Good grief, people are so touchy these days. He was paying her a compliment. If men stopped complimenting women on their looks there would be a feminine revolt that demanded men pay women more compliments about their appearance. Some people are never satisfied.

    April 5, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  19. DirtyHeat

    Honestly tho she is really not even that attractive. But I guess when you spend that much time with Pelosi anything would start to look good.

    April 5, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  20. Sniffit

    "probably received an earful from Michelle."

    I'm actually a little suprised nobody has tried to link her "single mother" verbal slip to this...makes for a gerat opportunity for a joke.

    April 5, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  21. Macc

    It was the last compliment he gave her and I think it was more a joke than anything.
    I could just be too old to get it!

    April 5, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  22. JC

    Mr. President, Please. Stand by a comment, any comment! You said nothing wrong, you did not diminish her accomplishments or background, you added to them by saying that in addition to being a clearly able leader, you are attractive also. no different than saying, at a Xmas party; "You look sensational." You just said it in public. Stop going back on everything you say! Please, I am begging you

    April 5, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  23. Homer

    I am NOT an Obama fan. There is very little about the man that I like. I think he is fake, dishonest, inexperienced, narcissistic, and promotes policies and agenda's that I most often disagree with. With that said, how can any reasonable person fault him for what he said? It was an off-handed non-official compliment about a woman's nice appearance. Woman spend a lot of time on their appearance. What's so wrong about taking notice? I think most woman who are comfortable with themselves would appreciate the compliment.

    April 5, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  24. ButlerBulldawg

    Anyone from other countries must be laughing that this even made the news.

    April 5, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  25. thebes42

    The NeoLibs have begun feeding on their own.

    April 5, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
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