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. hal

    I wonder if a GOP would get a "pass" for saying that or maybe they would be considered a predator!! Just sayin....

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  2. knightforx

    I'm glad he apologized for the "inconvenience of publicity" rather than the comment itself. There was absolutely nothing in the comment that he needed to apologize for.

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  3. john

    The comment was inappropriate or awful close to being inappropiate if one goes by the required annual training government workers and the military receive. As the command in chief of the armed forces he should set the example.

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  4. Mom

    Get a life! I don't like Obama, I am a woman, and I would be nowhere close to offended by this comment!
    With all that's going on in the world, it is ridiculous that this would make the news, not even mentioning a headline!
    Some reporters have either nothing to do or are utterly incompetent.

    April 5, 2013 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  5. Rex

    It's not a compliment when conservative makes a similar statement – it's a reminder of the big, bad, misogynist Republican picking on defenseless and over trodden women! But when a lib makes such a comment, it's just friendly banter. Just another example of the double standard, and an example of why most of us just don't care about this garbage.

    April 5, 2013 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  6. Eric

    I can't believe this is making news. Aren't there more important things to worry about, like North Korea and the budget?

    April 5, 2013 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
  7. scalrtn

    It was only inappropriate because it was OBAMA saying it...

    April 5, 2013 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
  8. Samuel Cooper

    What a big joke! President Obama has commented on the good looks of a number of men. Let me ask where was the backlash then? When will these double standards in our society stop? The President is able to say that a man is good looking; however when the same statement is made about a women it is a big stink made of it. It is this type of public reaction to nothing which ultimately belittle the accomplishments of women. Let them put on the big girl pants and deal with it like the men. Men must deal with the same comments from President Obama!

    April 5, 2013 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
  9. Chris

    Can't stand this President. But give the guy a break. Nothing wrong here. She's certainly the best one I've seen.

    April 5, 2013 07:32 pm at 7:32 pm |
  10. Timothy

    Oh please, it was a compliment, is there no Justin Beiber news tonight that we have to turn our attentions to an innocent remark?

    April 5, 2013 07:32 pm at 7:32 pm |
  11. Spence-Cotgreave

    Queen Victoria once remarked that Millard Fillmore (13th President of the United States) was: "The most handsome man.." Yes, I took that out of context but....look up Millard Fillmore, do an image search.

    April 5, 2013 07:32 pm at 7:32 pm |
  12. Pepou27

    I CARE about my social security, Medicare and taxes, and gun control. The rest ? I don't care ....

    April 5, 2013 07:33 pm at 7:33 pm |
  13. William

    Obama didn't say anything wrong, Republicans are always looking to start some mess. Now if he would have said the woman looked like aunt esther, that would have been a different story.

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  14. Trezenia

    He meant no disrespect at all, he gave her other compliments also, we need to quiet Nit Picking everything, everyone says. There is something called Freedom of Speech, unless it's terribly offensive, and mean spirited we should
    be able to speak freely! :)

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  15. john

    If one goes by the required annual training government workers and the military receive, this comment was inappropriate or awful close to being inappropiate.

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  16. Chris

    This is ridiculous. Really, there's no reason to apologize. If he should apologize to anyone, it should be his wife. It was a compliment. People are way too sensitive.

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  17. Redeye Dog

    I think it's a Liberal concern. The rest of the world could care less...

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  18. Bob

    Taken IN CONTEXT it was NOT inappropriate. Depends on whether one is looking to take any comment, even out of context, as offensive!!

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  19. Mark

    Give me a break!!! I didn't vote for him but let's be real. He made a comment and in my mind has no effect on him or this nice looking lady. Media get out of here........

    April 5, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  20. Matt

    Obama must be blind. Pam Bondi from Florida is the best looking AG.

    April 5, 2013 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  21. cathstar

    Can we, as a nation, possibly get a grip? President Obama gave her a compliment and what's wrong with that?

    April 5, 2013 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  22. James White

    Since when is complimenting a woman a negative thing. True enough, the President addressed Ms Harris's looks but he also spoke of her dedication and hard work. Has anyone asked Ms Harris if she felt the comment was inappopriate or disrespectful? Some of you need to get a life...

    April 5, 2013 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  23. Selmers

    Our apologizer and chief.

    April 5, 2013 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  24. Eddie Haskell

    I thought he was going to say that Eric Holder was the best looking AG in the U.S.

    April 5, 2013 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  25. gecul

    The PC chattering class is never happy!

    April 5, 2013 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
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