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. Jesse

    It was a joke people!!! tongue and cheek. Have you seen the other Attorney Generals? IT WAS A JOKE!!! get over it. The pause in his delivery is often referred to as comedic timing... Apparently none of those reporting on this had any sense of humor.

    April 5, 2013 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
  2. Warrior

    Very insecure people are the only one's that would take offense to that harmless remark.

    April 5, 2013 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
  3. jeffision

    If men were similarly evaluated by women superiors, they'd have a fit.

    April 5, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  4. Pete/Ark

    Damn! I'm SORRY ! I've always appreciated good looking women. Didn't know it was an INSULT. Should I ask my wife to ignore 42 years of compliments ?

    April 5, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  5. The Catskinner

    I recently called a former gf "Sweetie" intending it as a term of endearment and was castigated at length for being a male pig. About all you can safely say to or about women nowadays is "Goodbye."

    April 5, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  6. Eh.

    I can see both sides of the issue here. I think the statement was both complimentary and objectifying. Granted, we all know that Obama absolutely adores powerful women and gender equality. I'm leaning towards complimentary in this instance.

    April 5, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  7. angryoldguy

    No, a Republican would not have to resign, even if he was caught "hiking the Appalachian Trail", he would just wait it out and run again for office. Take your paranoid delusions elsewhere, "Rightie-Tightie"!

    April 5, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  8. Yanni

    If Obama sneeze it is a scandal in republican land. However, this GOP hoopla confirm that how perfect as a human being Obama is. Couldn't find legitimate flaws in him they are grasping for the straw.

    April 5, 2013 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  9. BadPolitx

    He didn't tell her her boobs were great, or comment on her posterior.
    He ended a very flattering sentence with, and your nice looking.
    WHO CARES. It's getting to a point in this country where you will not be able to complement anyone
    or get sent to PRISON.
    Women are the ones who will suffer, always so worried about their looks and if we don't
    tell them once and awhile that they are pretty they will grow up with the WORST self image!
    P.S. I don't know a woman that would not appreciate what he said!

    April 5, 2013 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  10. Hmm

    As much as I dislike President Obama, I really think this is much ado about nothing. Was it an awkward comment yes.

    But I do not think it was anything to worry about. Yes, I believe he may have said it with his wife in the audience, since they were old friends.

    April 5, 2013 05:48 pm at 5:48 pm |
  11. J R Brown

    Now that he doesn't have to worry about running for office again, he can say what he wants. The thing that has people ticked off is that he's letting his true colors show a bit instead of playing it "pc" and the ideologues are flabbergasted that he's not the epitome of "pc" perfection.

    Here's a clue...when they bar video cameras from an event, they're probably planning on a few things being said that would be embarrassing if they came out in public.

    And for those of you who think that one's appearance doesn't play a role in how successful they become, grow up. It's just the way the world works; we are not all created equal, despite your confusion regarding the issue of "equality". If two people are equally qualified for a position and one is attractive and the other is butt ugly, the attractive one SHOULD get the job because people react to others' appearances. It's just a fact of life.

    April 5, 2013 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  12. Just a guy

    His comment makes me wince. It doesn't offend me or make me go ballistic. It just makes me wince. It reinforces the idea that women's physical appearances are always relevant... but of course, it's a product of that idea, as well. It's not like he started this trend. He just got sucked into it. And I know he didn't mean it that way, so while I don't like it and I'm glad he apologized to her, I'm not holding it against him or anything.

    April 5, 2013 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  13. stillatmymoms

    It's a sad day in America when I fully agree with Rob Lowe's tweet.

    Since when does a person have to apologize for giving a compliment? You leftists are, not about, as messed up as the extreme right. Screw both parties–and political correctness for that matter.

    April 5, 2013 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  14. Ally

    Oh please who cares

    April 5, 2013 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  15. robtmorh

    This is not a partisan issue, or even a government issue. When in a professional capacity, it is inappropriate to refer to someone's "looks" or appearance - male or female. When speaking to our co-workers on the job, we don't say that so-and-so is ugly, homely, hot, fat, thin, or attractive. It simply isn't professional and doesn't promote a safe working environment. He apologized and rightfully so. End of story.

    April 5, 2013 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  16. Nick

    If he would of introduced Hilary this way she would of had his head on a platter. Let's not forget he is still married to the "Single Mom."

    April 5, 2013 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  17. Hoss

    POTUS meant no harm, but putting a superlative to her appearance shows disrespect to predecessors, and lack of professionalism for the importance of the position.

    April 5, 2013 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  18. Lynn

    Quit apologizing all the time , your the president , sound off like you've got a pair .

    April 5, 2013 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  19. Brian

    Do you remember AG Janet Reno? Now that dude was ugly.

    April 5, 2013 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  20. Smeagel4T

    It came at precisely the same point in his remarks where he always tries to insert something lighthearted. Perhaps he selected the wrong comment, but it was nothing more than an attempt to find something light hearted to say. It actually had me wondering whether she's currently the only female AG, and it was a lighthearted attempt to point that out.

    April 5, 2013 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  21. bigfoofan

    People chill out... we have bigger things to worry about like a possible nuclear war with Korea...
    I wonder if his wife had a few things to say about the comment. I know mine would. :-)

    April 5, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  22. Mark B.

    Funny how everyone forgets Brent Musberger's seemingly innocent compliment about Tom Brady's wife. Nearly got him fired. Now ask yourselves and answer truthfully, what if it was GWB, Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow, or any other person than BO? There would be a firestorm. He is held to account for nothing.

    April 5, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  23. Fred

    Really? Honestly, it just looks like a compliment. I mean, a compliment is a compliment, not a comment that indicates odd intentions. Also, they're friends, so it is even more acceptable. I really don't understand how a kind compliment can cause such agitation. Get over it!

    April 5, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  24. Patrish

    So now you want all women to not dress up, do make-up and hair? The fact that someone is smart and attractive is a plus. Come one look at all the fuss over Palin. As much as I dislike her, she is pretty. It doesn't matter who said it, its about how it was said – as a compliment, and added thought.. Even if it had been Romney or Bush, I'd wouldn't have thought much of it. Our President is not exactly a womenizer – so get over it.

    April 5, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  25. Zogulus Nig

    NOT NEWS. Anyone offended by that comment is, quite obviously, an idiot. If you want to attack someone for complimenting another person very innocently, perhaps we should just can the entire idea of outside evaluation. No more grading papers, giving performance appraisals, and especially no more commenting on whether someone looks good.

    He didn't say, "Man, I'd really like to jump into bed with that fox!". Hell, his comment may have even been scientifically correct – Is she the best looking Attorney General?

    You all do realize there are multiple wars going on, that children are going hungry and dying in the streets, and that there are a number of incurable diseases running rampant around the world, right? If you have time in your day to consider this issue "newsworthy" you have FAR too much time on your hands.

    April 5, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
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