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. Susan

    CNN you made this news. Stop the reporting of the trite when you avoid other news worthy stories. Please do not become Fox News!

    April 5, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  2. Rich

    From 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!"

    Notice how just recently in an interview she referred to herself as a single mom! What timing!!

    April 5, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  3. jac999

    I would like to see an online photo lineup of all the AG's, and then let the people decide who is best looking.

    April 5, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  4. joe the plumbed

    Whike, I agree that people are making a non issue in to an issue, I would have been fired from my job if I said that at work. Maybe he have an HR moment in the future. Mr. President, I know that you have a lot on your plate, but we need to discuss what is and what isn't appropriate at the workplace..

    April 5, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  5. jcvet33

    Imagine a republican saying something like that. They would be forced to resign by the leftist media.

    April 5, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  6. Billy joe jim bob jones

    LOL.. this is news ? Just love how the smallest things are blown so out of proportion, how dare he say someone is good looking.. I tell my girlfriend how good looking she is all the time.. I guess I should be flogged for having an opinion

    April 5, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  7. jcvet33

    Imagine a republican saying something like that? they would be forced to resign by the leftist media.

    April 5, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  8. Min.Greg Mc

    This subject is a bunch of CRAP. There are many issues which are much more serious than talking about this nonsense. GROW UP.

    April 5, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  9. dave bergquist

    Are you kidding me? Korea is threatening an attack on us, employment is going in the toilet and this issue is the most important thing we have to worry about today. Have we lost our minds? She should be thanking him right now, he just made her the most talked about woman in america.

    April 5, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  10. Shawn

    To those who say if this was Bush we would be all up in arms: Wrong. Maybe some liberals would be quick to judge, but there are some of us who are intelligent enough not to judge any president for such a remark. It is so sad that this country has come down to one against another, liberal against republican, my side or your side. I think it was great that Obama had the guts to come back and apologize, even though the AG was probably not in the least bit concerned with the compliment coming from a friend. If this had been Bush and he had apologized I would feel the same exact way. It tears my heart out to see what our president has to deal with (especially at time of war or impending war), and I'll say this, I tear up every time I see the secret service agent going up to President Bush to tell him that the towers were both hit by planes (if in fact that was what was said). I am not ex-military, but I go by their standards of supporting the president, whoever that may be. Mr President, you are doing an awesome job. President Bush and others, you did an awesome job. Thank you for your service.

    As a side note: Shouldn't we be more worried about North Korea than an innocent comment?

    April 5, 2013 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  11. John

    he needs his eyes checked.

    April 5, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  12. ass9

    Everything is fun and games with obama.Always joking while the country goes to pot.

    April 5, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  13. LastSaneMan

    WOW people are just so FU'd these days.

    April 5, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  14. hotAG

    I'm a republican, and don't care much for Obama's fiscal policies, but it's absolutely ridiculous that his innocuous comment is being turned into something it's not. Leave it to the femi-nazis to complain about a woman receiving a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  15. Sandra

    This is seriously ludacris! The GOP says ”I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” or “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down” yet everyone is screaming about a compliment?

    April 5, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  16. tokn

    oh my god really? Is this really an issue?

    Secondly when is it a crime to compliment someone? It's offensive now? jesus feminism running rampant.

    April 5, 2013 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  17. Summer

    He's married! That's what's wrong with it! Poor Michelle, no wonder she feels like atwo single mom.

    April 5, 2013 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  18. evan

    Since when a man cannot pay a compliment to a beautiful woman?
    Get a life!

    April 5, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  19. Deb My name

    America...land of the perpetually offended.

    April 5, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  20. g

    i though the same thing -will i be impeached

    April 5, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  21. Image Googler

    The buffoon can't get anything right. There are at least two sitting AGs who are clearly more attractive.
    He thinks that if he says something it becomes true even when it has no ring of truth and no hope of ever being true.
    Hopeless.

    April 5, 2013 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  22. Bernadette

    Women WANT to be viewed as attractive, so what's the problem? No woman waxes because it makes her feel better about herself.

    April 5, 2013 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  23. Hugh Mann

    At this rate, NO opinions will be allowed, about anything.
    Even mathematical or scientific theories are opinions. and if you go to your Doctor for treatment his prognosis is just an opinion..
    You Americans are getting a little crazy, have you noticed it?

    April 5, 2013 05:43 pm at 5:43 pm |
  24. Maggie

    No! and Shame on everyone including the press who thought it was. He knows her and she is very attractive. I cannot believe that anyone would consider a compliment to be politically incorrect, shameful, inappropriate or otherwise. Get over it people...it was a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
  25. julnor

    Shouldn't he be apologizing to all the other AGs?

    April 5, 2013 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
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