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. Happy

    The President and his appointees have far more important things to worry about than his paying a friend a simple compliment. Quite frankly, the world would be a better place if people in general paid one another sincere, deserved compliments more often than is usually the case.

    April 5, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  2. Mike Bushman

    I hope he also called to apologize to his home state Attorney General. Don't think her father, the Putin-like ruler of Illinois, will let this slight pass unnoticed.

    April 5, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  3. Sudip Shrestha

    We should always think positive. If someone says beautiful then she is beautiful not more than that.

    April 5, 2013 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  4. just sayin

    Lynda/Minnesota
    well ... I'm actually speechless.
    --

    no, that's not it. tell the truth for once. even you know what he said was wrong and out of line for the president of the united states. and even you cannot lie and defend obama's statements with a striaght face. come on lynda, fess up.

    April 5, 2013 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  5. lordnimrond

    Those who think this is a big deal need to take a break from the 24-hour news-stream for awhile... This was not a stranger talking about a stranger, this was a friend talking about a friend in ONLY positive ways...

    If you look too hard trying to constantly fine negative things, you'll certainly find them,...but you'll be discovering them inside yourself, for the most part...

    April 5, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  6. strategicstl

    Being nice and paying a compliment on intelligence, looks or even *gasp* athletic skill is just being human.
    Nothing wrong with saying someone is attractive. Nothing wrong with someone saying that something (purse, shoes, dress, accessories) is attractive either.

    Aren't we supposed to celebrate beauty?

    April 5, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  7. Asmodeus Belial

    American society is getting to be such a bloody politically correct cesspool. Unbelievable that people have enough time on their hands to get POd about stuff like THIS. Get. A. Life.

    April 5, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  8. Joe

    WWBMS – What Would Brent Musburger Say

    April 5, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  9. GetReal

    This is stupid.....really iit is!

    April 5, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  10. vinster76

    I don't like potus at all, I think he will ruin this country, but even I have to defend him on this one. Seriously America, grow up.....every one seems to have a chip on their shoulder about everything......such a bunch of sensitive imbeciles.

    April 5, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  11. kiara

    Would anyone say this to a male attorney general? Doubtful, it's a double standard.

    April 5, 2013 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  12. Monomachos

    The president was not responding to the press, he was responding to Michelle.

    April 5, 2013 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  13. Sniffit

    Better-left-unsaid and awkward compliment = MSM stokes faux outrage festival.

    GOP/Teatrolls call the majority of women baby murders and enact a string of legislation over the past few years designed to attenuate women's rights and ability to access reproductive goods and services = MSM stkoes the above faux outrage festival to distract from it.

    Any questions?

    April 5, 2013 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  14. M Hemmings

    This is ridiculous. Does any reasonable person think the POTUS was being disrespectful? Since when has it become inappropriate to give a compliment to a beautiful lady? I assure you that Holder, Biden, or any of the many other AGs didn't feel offended by this genuine compliment given to a friend.
    Those who wish to rant should talk about the weak jobs reports owing to the dysfunctional government and the air of uncertainty they are spreading.
    I meet many beautiful women daily. That is just one aspect of the many other fine attributes of our powerful and confident American women!

    April 5, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  15. John

    More excuses from democrats. If a republican would have made that remark you would be trashing them to anyone who would listen.

    April 5, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  16. vinster76

    grow up America! you cant swing a dead cat without someone crying in their milk about how offended they are....I don't like the pres, but even I have to defend him about this..........we are a nation of wusses....

    April 5, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  17. Tim B

    Its a scientific fact that a person's looks play into their success in business and society. Magazines like the Scientific American and Psychology Today are replete with evidence to that fact. If we are to be honest, we've devolved into a politically correct nation. With technology we lack face to face communication skills anymore so we see things that aren't there and we create hype because the internet allows us to hit from afar. Men can't pay compliments because women don't know what a real compliment is.... They've let the lurid acts of a few cause them to put a blanket moniker on all men. Yet you don't want it done to you. But you want to be complimented if you're in a relationship, this is a minefield that can only cause us to devolve further.

    April 5, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  18. scott

    He is just dying to take off the mask.

    April 5, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  19. pjoe

    Apology accepted. Move on.

    Only those who made a big deal out of Romney's "binders full of women" should be offended. Of course they won't say anything.

    April 5, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  20. JJ

    One Communist appologizing to the other.

    April 5, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  21. Dandy

    Hey, the POTUS says the truth and he gets bashed?? Come on.... that women is screaming HOT! Sizzle..Sizzle ..
    Gotta hand it to a guy who says it like it is....

    April 5, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  22. Har de har har

    Anyone who thinks that men aren't also judged by their looks is deluding themselves.

    April 5, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  23. craziness1

    Seriously AG, this is soooooo Stupid, an attractive person is upset for being referred to as attractive, wow, ridiculous. We are on the fringe of war & some female has to be a libber, choose a better battle, get over it.
    I am sick of people having to apologize for nothing. Babies.!

    April 5, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  24. RJ

    He also complimented her on her looks during a San Francisco fundraiser in his first campaign for president, but nobody cared about it then.

    April 5, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  25. sam

    Yeah, never compliment someone, no matter how innocently. Someone, somewhere will find something to cry about and make a mountain out of a molehill.

    April 5, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
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