April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
1 year 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. ChessMaster

    Pres. Obama is sorry. He meant to say that Eric Holder is the best looking Attorney General in the United States.

    April 6, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  2. Missy

    Just wondering how Mrs. Obama feels about him telling other women how good-looking they are.

    April 6, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  3. Missy

    And it is VERY inappropriate for a president to make a comment like that.

    April 6, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  4. Mark

    Please – someone go public and say I'm hot.

    April 6, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    Well, no wonder Mrs. Obama is now referring to herself as a single mom.

    April 6, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  6. Name fannie

    If the president did nothing wrong,then why did he apologize to her

    April 6, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  7. jp

    Get over it!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ms Harris is smart, extremely capable, tough on issues, and attractive. Yahoo to her!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 6, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  8. 2buttercups

    Much ado about a lot of nothing! Whenever I'm complimented, I always smile and thank the person. :)

    April 6, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    Please....lighten up people. I can't believe this remark is an issue. It was lighthearted and humorous!

    April 6, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  10. Lew

    I love how we are relentlessly making politicians apologize for the stupidest things, lol. He may be president, but we can really put on an easy guilt trip.

    April 6, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  11. JS

    What would the HR department of a Fortune 500 company say if a CEO in a speech to employees says "Gee Mary has done a terrific job in increasing sales and growing her department. And without a doubt she is the prettiest Senior V.P. in the company"...a true leader knows there are somethings that need not and should not be said in a public setting.

    April 6, 2013 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  12. Really?

    The President is human, just like all of us. It just shows that he's a down to earth person, and a MAN! And I doubt the First Lady is at all disturbed by it for she is a beautiful woman herself and by far one of the best looking First Ladies this country has had! Let him tell a woman that she is beautiful. Nothing at all wrong with that.

    April 6, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  13. Dream23

    What a joke.....it's 2013 get a grip people.

    April 6, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  14. william reed

    The uptight gotcha crowd is having a field day with this. Some good advice: get over it.

    April 6, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    I don't think the President needed to apologize. I think the apology and its acceptance were made to placate the PC crowd. Given the artifice and indignities many women put themselves through to garner male attention, most would be upset if they weren't noticed. So, guys, appreciate them, but keep it to yourselves, or you will offend those who are always looking to be offended. This is from a woman married 44 years to my husband. I have always avoided artifice, which I see as dishonest . My husband noticed me when I was working in a department store. My face was ans has remained bare of makeup.
    Mrs. Obama might have given the President an 'old-fashioned look' when he came through the door that evening unless he had a good clean-up line ready. These are things you laugh about in a long marriage.

    April 6, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  16. Rathelon

    Give me a break. Are we so politically correct that we cant even compliment women? Aren't we done with this political correct bullcrap yet?

    April 6, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  17. Tonyb

    what a load of crap. It's a compliment, not a pass for god's sake.

    April 6, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  18. angelosdaughter

    I think the apology was tendered and accepted to placate the PC crowd. Given the indignities and amount of artifice many women go thorough to get noticed, many would be upset if they weren't. So, guys, notice them, appreciate them, but keep any remarks to yourself to avoid being demonized by those who are always looking to be offended.
    I have been married to my husband for 44 years. I avoid artifice which I see as dishonest, but that's who I am. When he first noticed me, I as working in a department store; my face was bare of makeup and my hair color the color I was born with.
    I think Mrs. Obama may have given the President an 'old fashioned look' when he came in that night unless he had a good cleanup line ready. These are the things you laugh about in a long marriage.

    April 6, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  19. Politically Correct Professor

    Sad but true, professional men should never, never make any comment about how a women looks or smells or moves. Yes, these qualities are often noticed, but can never be acknowledged. Women just have to trust that their appearance is acceptable, or is perhaps an asset. Being attractive, male or female, makes a big difference in our society. We just can't acknowledge this. Of course we're not going to start wearing bags over our heads or banning the use of make-up or high heels, or $3,000 suits. Instead, we'll just continue to pretend that all this makes no difference and make sure we never make any gender-specific comments. It's the politically correct, but in many ways hypocritical, world we inhabit.

    April 6, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  20. Len

    Political correctness has run amok. Btw, she is good looking! Sue me!!!

    April 6, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  21. Name

    LOl! Oh boy!!! He said I'm cute!!!!

    April 6, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  22. JB78

    Since when is paying someone a compliment sexist? Political correctness has gone way too far...

    April 6, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  23. Mark

    is there a lack of news to the point that it's necessary to run this as an attempt for headline news? wow

    April 6, 2013 06:04 pm at 6:04 pm |
  24. Timothy

    This is outrageous. Who the hell cares. So what. We see and here stuff like this all the time and we see it as harmless flirting or just giving a compliment, but just because its obama we got to make a big deal about it. Damn what the hell wrong with people, a man cant give someone a compliment. Shame on this country

    April 6, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  25. ellamvaram

    It's time people in this Country grow up; be mature and in touch with reality. Personally, I see nothing disparaging of what the President said about Kamala Harris' looks. It sure is a compliment and not a statement of sexism as some think. Furthermore, I do not know, and perhaps you don't know, how many time Obama complimented Kamala Harris, she's a family friend and is no threat to Michelle. How did some take only the "good looking" statment and ignored the rest of the compliment? Come on, America, be more understanding. Some of you were waiting for this day; to catch Obama do something or say something that had a shade of sexism to crucify hime. Have you not done enough of that since he was elected?

    April 6, 2013 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
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