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. cedar rapids

    I have to come down on the side of it being a bad comment here. I understand what he was trying to do but unless he would have turned around and claim some guy was the most handsome whatever as well, which he is unlikely to do, then I can see why it would be considered a s exist comment.

    April 5, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  2. Sniffit

    Right...after we had to listen to and watch reporters and politicians all repeatedly moisten their panties over Lyin' Ryan's puppydog eyes. Yawn.

    April 5, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  3. MaryM

    Its a compliment, beauty and brains all in one. Understand repubs

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  4. California Conservative

    Everyone knows whatever Obama says is perfectly fine, he's never wrong.

    Move along people......................

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  5. Pragmatist

    The feminist crowd makes me laugh again. They equate feminity with some sort of inadequacy. Nothing could be further from the truth and from our genetic make-up. Their own sense of insecurity forces them to try to be gender blind. The two genders are different and the idiocy of not recognizing the simple genetic fact is not going to change it. I know plenty of feminine women who are very successful professionals and enjoy being complemend on how they look. While I do not share the President's views on a number of issues, he paid the lady a very nice complement and women who are secure about themselves will recognize it as such.

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  6. Kent

    In context ...."She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Obama said, according to the report." Plus, the fact that the two are friends and the majority of State AG's are men, I don't have a problem with it. I suggest that The President's comment was more a reflection of the lack of women in that post, than boorish behavior. Having said that, I think the President should refrain from making any comments about the attractiveness of anyone. There is a high potential for the comment to be misinterpreted.

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  7. Me Not You

    Consider this: You are at work and you tell your co-worker, "By the way, you are the best looking co-worker here." Could you be in the HR office by the end of the day? I think so. If you disagree, try it at work tomorrow.

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  8. Vittal Pyati

    I just turned 81 and never miss to compliment a woman for her good looks. My wife has gotten used to it sbecause she thinks a 81 year old fahrt is harmless. "Women's worst enemy is her good looks" so says a Sanskrit admonition. By the way women with Indian blood are the most beautiful.

    April 5, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  9. Jim Smith

    But she isn't good looking. The picture they show, shows her as very ugly.

    April 5, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  10. Annie

    I think it's the context. It's the fact that he was speaking of her in business/political capacity and brought her looks into it. In certain other settings, complimenting a woman's looks is fine; in the business world, it's better left alone.

    Also, why on earth are tweets considered newsworthy???!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  11. Nova

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough" – What a shocker. The President commented on a woman's capabilities in her profession and it did not make news. Do we expect a woman to be competent enough so that that comment gets overlooked? Are women no longer merely eye candy in the Attorney General's office? Where is Sarah Palin when we need a beauty queen who also knows her geography?

    April 5, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  12. simp

    Well it is what it is, she is an attractive woman however I don't know why you gopers make a big deal out of everything this President says. When you repubs get an attractive woman in your party then you can flaunt it. LOL!!

    April 5, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  13. Thank God He Can't Run Again

    Had Bush done this, Democrats would have crucified him. Double standard at work!!

    April 5, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  14. Kassa

    Are you kidding me? Have we lost our minds? The woman is as beautiful as dark and beautiful Cleopatra. Finding myself along side of this woman I would have said the same thing. You cannot even speak the truth and tell a woman she is beautiful any more. We need some more real men and real women. Enough of this stupidity. I envy you Mr. President. The only person the president should worry about is tough, no joking , scary and yet still beautiful Michelle. If she was my wife I would be on my best guard and just look and do not touch. Mr. President one word of advise. Let a trusted SS agent look for you the next time a Cleopatra is around then tell you what you missed.

    April 5, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  15. Obama Gone Wild

    Yeah!! Look at those LEGS and that TATA!! She can be my Attorney General ANY DAY! I was getting sick and tired of that clutz Holder. Come on Baby, you can do it! YEAH!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  16. Pragmatist

    The feminist crowd makes me laugh again. They equate feminity with some sort of inadequacy. Nothing could be further from the truth and from our genetic make-up. Their own sense of insecurity forces them to try to be gender blind. The two genders are different and the idiocy of not recognizing the simple genetic fact is not going to change it. I know plenty of feminine women who are very successful professionals and enjoy being complemented fon how they look. While I do not share the President's views on a number of issues, he paid the lady a very nice complement and women who are secure about themselves will recognize it as such.

    April 5, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  17. Ferret out the BS

    No one comparable on the repub side.

    April 5, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  18. g

    SO WHAT

    April 5, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  19. emma

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Sounds like he addressed her intelligence and work ethic to me. Why do these random twitter women think they have any right to speak on her behalf, or the behalf of women in general? Janet Reno might be peeved, but it sounds like some folks are looking under rocks for reasons to be offended.

    April 5, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  20. sativa619

    Oh for cryin'..... aren't we the sensitive country? Stahp.

    April 5, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  21. FireGuy

    Amazing. The double standard and hypocrisy of the media. If Pres. Bush said this, the "prevailing sentiment" would overwhelmingly reflect condemnation. Since it's Pres. Obama, it's a "harmless compliment".

    April 5, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  22. me

    Time to lighten up on the PC strings... there are good looking women and handsome men in this world, as long as it's a compliment and not the reason for a job, then IT'S JUST A COMPLIMENT... and to be clear, I'm a left leaning liberal... time to put on the big boy pants and quit crying about such "nothingness" as this...

    April 5, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  23. g

    SO WHAT- republicans say the same about palin-SO WHAT

    April 5, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  24. vidal808

    So what, she is a beautiful woman. He is right.....

    April 5, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  25. Derek

    If you criticize Obama for bringing up this womans physical appearances, I hope for consistencys sake you also never bring up the fact that Obama is black.

    April 5, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
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