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. .Hugh Jorgan

    In America an honest statement can get you in a lot of trouble.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  2. Steve

    So many people on the right are SO desperate to throw stones at this president, ANYTHING they can find to talk about they will. Sad really given that there are a HUGE host of REAL issues they could take the president to task on. Just goes to show how far off the rails US politics and gone. Rally, really sad that so many (intelligent) people are making hay out of this.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  3. James

    People need to ease up...from Canada.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  4. noly972

    Was she offended? No.

    In that case, it's inappropriate for anyone else to be offended for her.

    Sometimes a compliment is just a compliment. Some people need to lighten-up.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  5. navaJohn

    It was a joke and a compliment, ghesh! Don't you people talking down the president have any sense of just how ridiculous you sound?

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  6. tate

    We cant acknowledge women's beauty publicly then lets cancel miss USA and all the pageants.Better yet let all women wear burqas

    April 5, 2013 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  7. Britta Taylor

    If it was me, I'd be flattered.

    April 5, 2013 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  8. Eligio

    Oh please! Kamala Harris is in a position of power on her own merits and she happens to be gorgeous!

    April 5, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  9. Dave

    Wow...an apology is necessary for calling a woman good looking? This country is doomed!

    April 5, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  10. Rodster

    My personal opinion is that, in this age, it is inappropriate to evaluate someone's work performance by discussing their physical appearance.

    I suppose if someone can find an example where the president describes a male official as "The best looking ..." then it would be a bit more balanced.

    April 5, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  11. Patrick

    Oh God. It was nothing but a harmless comment. When did complimenting someone on their looks become news? Judging by most of the comments on here, these are nothing but a bunch insecure ugly white republicans who probably look like father time himself has been kicking there ass and they have nothing else to talk about. Get over it. Not Obamas fault that you are ugly on the inside and the outside.

    April 5, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  12. BlackDynamite

    They should just bone and get it over with......
    BD

    April 5, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  13. caesaro

    Apparently nothing is happening in the world and our big issues have taken back seat, because it's more important for the media to focus on a compliment. I swear as a society we suk.

    April 5, 2013 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  14. Spaz

    As if we need more evidence that Obama is an idiot.

    April 5, 2013 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  15. Missy

    I am liking Obama less and less every day. Guess he doesn't really think much of or care what the people who voted him into office again think of him since this is his term.

    April 5, 2013 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  16. Utternonsense

    I am not a fan of the pres. but this is just PC garbage.

    April 5, 2013 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  17. Missy

    "last term."

    April 5, 2013 07:04 pm at 7:04 pm |
  18. Spaz

    If I told one of my co-workers that she is the best looking employee I have, what do you think would happen?

    April 5, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  19. caesaro

    I just can't believe with the large number of important issues in the world the focus is a compliment from the president that is being twisted and twisted around. It's like trying to make orange juice out of rock. There is nothing there but the media is enjoying the media made debacle.

    April 5, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  20. Spaz

    Look at all the Obama Kool-Aid drinkers coming out to support the pig.

    April 5, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    This is not news.

    April 5, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  22. Abu Shaibah

    Really!!! It is most Unfortunate what we as a nation have become . A man cannot compliment a female; sad indeed. We killed Joe Camel and the Marlboro man. Now the attack is on chivalry. Pretty soon when we are done destroying our young American culture we can then take the attack to our civil liberties. Hopefully I have passed away by then.

    April 5, 2013 07:06 pm at 7:06 pm |
  23. amlowlife

    ...and I was offended when former President Clinton called TX Gov. a "good-looking rascal".

    April 5, 2013 07:06 pm at 7:06 pm |
  24. It doesnt matter

    Grow up people. geez. what does it even matter. Why dont people stand up about real stuff. like starving families living on the streets, getting rid of people on death row, stopping the police action in North Korea.. oh wait! ..lol

    April 5, 2013 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  25. amlowlife

    ...and I was offended when ex-Prez Clinton called TX Gov. a "good-looking rascal". Please, people, only compliment the ugly ones. They need the props...

    April 5, 2013 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
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