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. Anonymous

    Wonder what the reaction would be if the previous president had done the same thing? Wouldn't be too many liberals saying "no big deal", that's for sure.

    April 5, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  2. Yashirov

    Obama shouldn't have called Harris to apologize. He should've called all the other state attorneys general for denigrating their looks.

    April 5, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  3. Rahm

    Ugly women don't like that stuff. Enough already!

    April 5, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  4. Nick

    Michelle must be seething! Separate vacations are in order again. The Prez needs to stop acting like Tiger Woods. Makes me think they are on the rocks!

    April 5, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  5. Jay

    I find it hard to find anything this narcissist does as appropriate, but this is not a topic I can not call him out on. He paid her a compliment and so what. People get a life! If Mitchell has an issue with it he will have to deal with that. iIam just glad to see he has some testosterone! Most of the time I wonder?

    April 5, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  6. Ruthie

    OMG. People really have lost their sense of humor! Just because he's president, he can't be a person?? He can't pay a compliment without being criticized? Has to come from his opponents or women with self esteem to begin with.

    April 5, 2013 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  7. Expat American

    So why the outrage?

    Both her attributes and her looks were on the President's mind. Her attributes meaning her professional accomplishments and her looks because her and the President are longtime friends.

    It's not like the President lied to the United Nations and launched an illegal war.

    April 5, 2013 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  8. Paul

    So lame! Harmless comment. Ms. Harris herself didn't complain. And all these feminists are up in arms. Ridiculous.

    April 5, 2013 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  9. Ruby

    Good heavens, where is the humanity? Must it all be cold and calculated, focus on her work and keep quiet on friendly matters? If this crap keeps up we are going to grow silent as everyone will be afraid to speak for fear of hurting some whiners feelings.

    April 5, 2013 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  10. RainCityLady

    Eye roll. Some people have a lot of time on their hands. Grasping at straws if the sign of desperation.

    April 5, 2013 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  11. SafeJourney

    It was a compliment. This is what Obama said. "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general,"

    April 5, 2013 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  12. raenanda

    I'm sure all the apologists on here would feel exactly the same way had Bush made a similar comment. No hypocrites here.

    April 5, 2013 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  13. Rosslaw

    We obviously have a huge number of inidividuals with way too much spare time on their hands if this is a story of concern.

    April 5, 2013 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    can a man be a man , anymore

    April 5, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  15. liberal disease

    she aint even that hot, Barry and Bubba have the same taste in women

    April 5, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  16. jkane sfl the gop national disgrace party will be swept out like the trash they are in2014 ?

    Well, the gop would have been happy if Obama said she should be bare foot and slaveing over a hot stove . Facts are facts and I'm sure she is the best looking ag. So what .

    April 5, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  17. Michael

    Sometimes I sense Americans have never left behind their middle school behavior. In an effort to feel always one up on this president, the opposition picks the silliest times to defend an indefensible position. Grow up...move on!

    April 5, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  18. Brad

    People should focus their criticism his economic policies. Plenty of problems to focus on there, rather than this mundane comment.

    April 5, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  19. Tinisha

    Well she is pretty cute. I think this is just silly. He paid a women a compliment, an old close friend at that. I think everyone is getting a little overworked over nothing. Had a Republican said the same thing about a co worker that would not be a federal offense either. What working men and women cannot compliment each other now with out it turning into a national discussion.

    April 5, 2013 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  20. Billy

    can a man be a man , anymore

    April 5, 2013 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  21. Brad

    I have long been bothered by this practice. Obama has done nothing out of the ordinary, which I think is part of the problem. It happens all the time, wherein a woman's beauty is listed along with her assets or accomplishments. Beauty is not an accomplishement. And, it shouldnt factor in to a person's worth. But in the real world, a person's beauty is held in high esteem.. It's part of our sickness of superficiality.

    April 5, 2013 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  22. Paul Pierre

    Kamala, her sister, and niece are all very good looking (yes I said it....They are hot) accomplished women. There is nothing wrong with good looks even when it does NOT come with smarts. In the case of the Harris women, they are dually blessed. POTUS made an astute observation......So What!!!!.....And yes...I am a Republican, with a brain...

    April 5, 2013 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  23. NameFranklin myers

    She is a good looking AG and that is a fact that can't be denied. Now, if Bill Clinton said that... Be afraid, very afraid.

    April 5, 2013 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  24. Brad

    I have long been bothered by this practice. Obama has done nothing out of the ordinary, which I think is part of the problem. It happens all the time, wherein a woman's beauty is listed along with her accomplishments. Beauty is not an accomplishement. And, it shouldn't factor in to a person's worth. But in the real world, a person's beauty is held in high esteem.. It's part of our sickness of superficiality.

    April 5, 2013 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  25. Curtis

    Interesting how a bunch of OBAMA supporters still exist.
    Are you guys done with the blaming yet? Is it still Republican's fault? What about conservative Democrats? Any other us vs. them arguments to hi-lite for today? This guy is our leader, yet may never be criticized. Why? Please explain. Please explain what this man's goals are for the country succinctly. Please explain where he stands on the budget. Please explain when he will acknowledge the failure of the African American home to be a failure of fathers. He has done NOTHING for lower income communities, but spread lies. I am living his lie everyday.

    April 5, 2013 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
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