April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
1 year 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. Michael

    What if the person had a different look, other that what society views beauty as, and the presidents still commented on her looks, because she is well groomed and look professional. Who this be an issue.

    Or is this an issue for smart women who just happen to to have a look that society deem beautiful. Darn it if the women is beautiful and smart, she is doomed, and will never get a compliment.

    Everyone woman appreciates a complement.....

    Is the real issue that many beautiful people are promoted because of their looks versus their brain.

    April 5, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  2. notsosad

    hope she ditches all the stained clothing or we may have a new Monica.

    April 5, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  3. bob, ny

    It's a sad day when a man can no longer offer a compliment to a woman...or vice versa. Could the president have chosen his words better?...with 20/20 hindsight, we ALL can. I'm sure he did not intend to offend anybody! The haters will offer their hate for ANYTHING he does. Offer your pity to them, for their comments are by far, more offensive.

    April 5, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    President Obama's comments were absolutely harmless. He also called Ms Harris brilliant, tough and dedicated in case those so who were so easily easily offended by the Presidents remarks forgot. Acknowedging the Attorney General's attractiveness in no way disparages her past accomplishments and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to seriously stop taking life so seriously!

    April 5, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  5. blaze562

    The criteria of qualifications to be hired or appointed by the Obama administration is as follows, must be good looking and must be black. He is setting the example so if we were to go to war with North Korea than who would be running that show Beyonce, He should watch the ethical side of politics also which he chooses to ignore.

    April 5, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  6. Ben

    The President needs to concentrate on Korea not on which skirt he is checking out while his angry wife is flapping on and on about being a single mom.

    April 5, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  7. queenbee10

    Anonymous–Bush did much worse, during an economic summit, he got up and walked over to Prime Minister from Germany and gave her an unasked for back rub–everyone there including the German Prime Minister were horrified–but Ol' bush took it like the food dribbling out of his open mouth at a state dinner–person that he was...

    April 5, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  8. nvmature

    These days it is completely inappropriate to tell an attractive woman she is attractive. Feminists go crazy. A woman needs to know all that effort they put into looking good is ignored and unappreciated. Obama should know that; I mean, he is married, isn't he?

    April 5, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  9. billmosby

    I would like to know, if she's the best looking, who Obama thinks is first runner-up. lol.

    April 5, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  10. SafeJourney

    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,"
    It was a compliment to AG Kamala Harris and that is how she took it.

    April 5, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  11. jac999

    Oh for pete's sake It was definitely a compliment. I'm tempted to think maybe the reporter was having a slow news day. Why do people always overreact like this to harmless happenings? Perhaps it is to distract themselves from dealing with their own daily problems, or maybe even to forget about impending world war for a few moments. When someone throws you a bone, sometime it is better to just ignore that and go on.

    April 5, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  12. JP

    The only people that are offended are women still rebelling against this so called "man's world" like adolescent teens. An emotionally secure woman, a REAL woman, would not see his remarks as a threat. My wife is from one of the most feminist countries in the world, Denmark. She wasn't phased by these remarks because she is secure with herself. This is a typical problem with the "pop" version of feminism plaguing America. Traditional feminists were stronger than this.

    I imagine a strong accomplished woman such as Judge Judy wouldn't care about Obama's remarks, whereas a bitter emotionally insecure woman such as Nancy Grace might, for example. That is why I respect someone like Judge Judy but not Nancy Grace. And I am positive Kamala Harris doesn't care either.

    And another thing, if Hillary Clinton were president and she were complimenting a man on HIS looks, I doubt anyone would care. And she certainly wouldn't need to apologize.

    Obama knows this was being televised so he would never say anything publicly that would make his wife angry. Only an insecure wife would be upset. Michelle Obama is much stronger than that.

    Grow up little girls. This isn't high school anymore. Perhaps if you weren't so threatened, you might actually get that promotion you were looking for or become the next CEO of a major company.

    April 5, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  13. Obama's Subconscious

    Hey! Back off of Obama! Obama was stumped in his attempt to compliment Kamala Harris and ended up muttering that she is good looking. She has not accomplished much as a public official in San Francisco and California

    April 5, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  14. AnonymousToo

    Seriously!? Some of you think this was a disparaging remark? I think this country has gone off the deep end. I would consider it a compliment and a bit of humor on Obama's part. Get a life people!

    April 5, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  15. raenanda

    From Wiki: "When SFPD Officer Isaac Espinoza was murdered in the Bayview district (of San Francisco). Harris announced that she would not seek the death penalty for the man accused of his killing. The decision evoked protests from the San Francisco Police Officers Association, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others. David Hill (who used an AK-47 to kill the officer) was given life without the possibility of parole.

    While still D.A. of S.F. and in the case of Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant and alleged MS-13 gang member who was accused of murdering Tony Bologna and his sons Michael and Matthew on September 10, 2009, Harris announced she would seek life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than the death penalty.

    April 5, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  16. JP

    The only people that are offended are women still rebelling against this so called "man's world" like adolescents. An emotionally secure woman, a REAL woman, would not see his remarks as a threat. My wife is from one of the most feminist countries in the world, Denmark. She wasn't phased by these remarks because she is secure with herself. This is a typical problem with the "pop" version of feminism plaguing America. Traditional feminists were stronger than this.

    I imagine a strong accomplished woman such as Judge Judy wouldn't care about Obama's remarks, whereas a bitter emotionally insecure woman such as Nancy Grace might, for example. That is why I respect someone like Judge Judy but not Nancy Grace. And I am positive Kamala Harris doesn't care either.

    And another thing, if Hillary Clinton were president and she were complimenting a man on HIS looks, I doubt anyone would care. And she certainly wouldn't need to apologize.

    Obama knows this was being televised so he would never say anything publicly that would make his wife angry. Only an insecure wife would be upset. Michelle Obama is much stronger than that.

    Grow up little girls. This isn't high school anymore. Perhaps if you weren't so threatened, you might actually get that promotion you were looking for or become the next CEO of a major company.

    April 5, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  17. Scotty

    Well, at least he didn't lie. She does look pretty good.

    April 5, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Big deal. She's hot.

    April 5, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  19. Keyser

    Yeah, it's wrong to say a woman is pretty...cuz we know that they are all ugly. And for that matter it is wrong to say they are competent or organized or best suited for a position because that is a lie too. Let's just go back to having them barefoot and pregnant. Thanks.

    April 5, 2013 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  20. Allan

    Im sure she is in one of his binders of beautiful women.

    April 5, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  21. Glenn

    Must be a slow news day at CNN...

    April 5, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  22. Bee

    These same people who are tweeting and commenting that there is nothing to it, and I happen to agree, would go ballistic if a Republican said it.

    April 5, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  23. raenanda

    So BO thinks Kamala Harris is "good looking" and Michelle Obama feels like a single mom.. Imagine if poor Bush had been in the exact same position. Oh the hypocrisy. Its so transparent its hysterical. LOL.

    April 5, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  24. BlackDynamite

    Sad day when you have to apologize for being a man.....
    BD

    April 5, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  25. Paul

    I don't like Obama's policies nor his political direction, nor did I vote for him. But at some point we have to cut each other just a little bit of slack. We're ALL people and we ALL make mistakes and say things we shouldn't sometimes, and even IF this is something he might have been better off not saying, it falls into the "cut the man some slack" category IMO.

    All I would ask of you liberals (that think Obama's comment was okay) is if you'd have said the same thing if it was Bush that said it about an AG that was his friend. I hope you'd cut Bush (the person) the same slack that I'm willing to cut Obama (the person). Hypocrisy is something ELSE that we can have a lot less of in our society.

    April 5, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
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