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. JS

    Simultaneous to this, Michelle Obama slips and says she's a single mother - Now we know why.– Obama is obviously having an affair with Kamala Harris. Obama is a cheat in his personal life as well as everything he does in his socialist rule of Scamerica.

    April 5, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  2. Joe

    What's the point of throwing on a huge amount of product and making yourself look presentable if you're going to get all up and arms when someone calls you good looking..

    April 5, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  3. Mike Wrathell

    If she is the best-looking AG in all 50 states, then there is a problem.

    April 5, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  4. Tom Meyer

    Another Obama oopsy suggesting he has more than one brain connected to his mouth. Didn't anyone pick up on the suggestion that other female attorneys general were dogs by comparison? Not only is he "wrong", but he's wrong, too. Check out Minnesota's Lori Swanson at http://www.ag.state.mn.us/Photos/LoriSwanson.jpg

    April 5, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  5. Tom Hartman

    More nonsensical political correctness gone mad. Oversensitive, reactionary children who all belong in a big sandbox with toys.

    April 5, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  6. Sal

    Coincidence – that Michelle indicated She was a single mother on a radio talk show this morning? Of course it was.

    April 5, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  7. Charles

    Look we all need love and affection plus it was just a compliment I don't think Obama was wrong for that remark.We need woman in our lives just like we need them it's the way of life. And since when woman dont like being complimented

    April 5, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  8. Zooompilot

    Good thing he didn't call her Black...that would have been an insult. Oh wait, she is black. Well, calling her good looking is an insult! Oh wait, she is good looking. Well, then he'd better certainly not call her a women because then he'd really be in trouble! Oh, wait...she is a woman. If feminists don't want to be complimented then they should just grow beards, stop shaving their legs and wear big clunky orthopedic shoes instead of heels. Trust me, the compliments WILL stop.

    April 5, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  9. POD

    Give it a rest already......this faux, media manufactured, hyper sensitivity.....when you have a 24/7 news window you need to 'create' so-called news to fill all the 'dead space' in all the mediums....ENOUGH!

    April 5, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  10. Matthew

    This is dumb. Nothing wrong with what Obama said. Stirring the pot. Please note that I don't even like Obama but I am saying this statement.

    April 5, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  11. Lexxs

    There is nothing to apologise about. Just forget the feminists with their obsession about guys enjoying a pretty woman.

    April 5, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  12. Nonsense

    @Norm, Obama does not need to apologize to anyone for anything? If that is true then it would make him an elitist, and above everything and everyone.

    April 5, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  13. Atul C.

    Why are people offended that he apologized? Hasn't he been doing the same thing from the beginning? He comments and then apologize. First he fires the lady in the morning and in the afternoon, he apologizes. I agree that one should have guts to apologize and close the matter. But the point I want to bring is that when somebody from right apologizes, media rubs it on and drags it for ever. Liberals gets livid. President is human too. Obama tries to be cool which puts him in trouble.

    April 5, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  14. Dan

    She should have called Obama, and thanked him for his compliments..... And all the ugly people are mad, cause no one ever gives them a compliment.... Freedom of speech is going to hell with this new political correctness B.S. No one ever said we are suppose to be the most polite country, you can go to the U.K. for that... THIS IS AMERICA...

    April 5, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  15. Obama-Bin-Lyin

    Dems are such pervs.

    April 5, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  16. Acute Reckoning

    Simply stated, more than anything, it was a foolhardy misguided attempt to be both funny and complimentary. More public figures get into trouble trying to be "funny and clever" than for any other reason. WHY? Because invariably, these are unscripted, extemporaneous, off-the-cuff aside remarks that, by definition, lack the reflection and scrutiny that their carefully 'scripted' comments have been subjected to. It's fairly easy and common to over-reach to get that laugh – unless it's self-depricating humor.

    April 5, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  17. RCBinTN

    He is right – she is good looking.

    April 5, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  18. Jackie

    Conservatives allowed Obama to know his place and complimenting, showing respect, manners to women is not allowed by him. Conservatives and even other President are allow to insult, degrade and attack women and it's accepted. 2/7/2007 Daddy Bush enjoying a great lunch with Terry Hatcher was seen giving her a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the butt with no apology and conservatives with Media cheered. The Foreign News showed the video of President George W. Bush feeling on President Merkel as she quickly get security. George W. even attended a Beach-Volleyball Event and rushed out and patted Misty on the butt which she ran. Yes the Bush men like patting women's butts and no problem. Now when McCain announced Sarah Palin as the VP the men went wild calling her pretty, beauitful, gorgous and hot. But notice no apologies required nor demanded. But dare this President think he can respect women is bad.

    April 5, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  19. Joe

    Just shows how far crazy we are. You can't even compliment a pretty lady anymore in our society.

    April 5, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  20. Tommy G

    It is clear the only reason she has the job is because of her looks, right Barack?

    April 5, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  21. judith mcfarlane

    For heaven's sake, ladies, stop being so darned sensitive. Keep up the silly admonishments for trite situations. Makes you sound like a bunch of little, whining girls.

    April 5, 2013 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  22. Bobby

    Seriously, has he ever seen Pam Bondi of Florida? Now there's an AG I'd love to be "prosecuted" by!

    April 5, 2013 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  23. Ross

    First of all, it was indeed a personal compliment between friends because she is not actually that good looking in the classical sense. Second; if this has actually become an ISSUE, then the world is indeed totally SHOT!!! What a shame we have gone that far astray that this could be considered at all important. tsk tsk tsk!!!

    April 5, 2013 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  24. Boring Media Hype

    OMG, so a compliment on how beautiful she is translates into an insult? This political correctness will destroy this country, one apology at a time

    April 5, 2013 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  25. MaryM

    Here is what President Obama said. "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general,"
    It was a compliment to AG Kamala Harris and that is how she took it.

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
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