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. Really?

    What would the response have been if a female politician with tremendous power had remarked that a male politician with less power was the 'best looking so and so'? If a comment like this is made between close friends, no big deal – although the time and place the comment is made could be questioned since others may not know that it is a comment between friends. If a comment like this is made between people that are only meeting recently, or for the first time, in this type of forum – not appropriate at all, regardless of political affiliation and/or position of power.

    April 5, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  2. Flicka

    The double standard in this country is amazing-even more amaxzing are the ineptocrats defense of it.

    April 5, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  3. Tony Realie

    People should watch Around the horn. The host regularly calls both male and female guests "The best looking panel" or "Good looking panel"

    People need to quit looking to be offended.

    Also, people are judged on appearance. Always have, always will. Quit being fat.

    April 5, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  4. chris

    Best determining factor. would you have the same opinion if a republican said the same comment. objectivity is lost in bias.

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

    I just can't believe he would chose her over his buddy Eric!!!!!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  6. spenteco

    My gosh, if Americans couldn't gripe what ever would happen to us? It is to the point that unless you are a give-a-s–t teabagger it is best to remain mute about everything and anything lest you run the chance of hurting someome's lil feelings.

    April 5, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  7. ted

    Janet Reno was not a good looking woman by any stretch.

    April 5, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  8. FORE

    What do you expect after getting tips on his putting game from Tiger?

    April 5, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  9. Woman In California

    I can't wait to hear the righties complain about CNN never giving the president "negative coverage". I know they are loving this. Anyway, I miss the days when a man could compliment me on my looks or clothing without being accused of inappropriate conduct. In this case-although the president was only complimenting her, I think this was better off not said.

    There are far more important issues going on right now.

    April 5, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  10. cc

    So, our 'Campaigning/Fundraiser/Failure in Chief' decided to hit on a woman for the world to see. Seems he's taking lessons from his VP on how to open mouth, insert foot and look like a complete idiot. By the way, does this guy ever get tired of rubbing elbows with the 1% that he and the Democrats hates so much. Hypocrites!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  11. lottie

    Is this a slow news day or what? It was a compliment . Get over it. The repos just voted for Sanford after all his crap now they try to act offended. Get a life you trolls.

    April 5, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  12. girliegirl

    If he hadn't said she was "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough" first I might think it was offensive but he did acknowledge her character. It probably was a bit inappropriate but so was declaring "Mission accomplished" in Iraq in 2003 and it has cost us a heck of a lot more money.

    April 5, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  13. Logic N LA

    This is ridiculous to even discuss. First it was done as a compliment and was meant to be funny. Newt, John McCain, Democrats all commented on Romney's looks. People have commented on Brown of Massachusetts, Paul Ryan.
    If it were him saying she was too ugly to do here job, or saying she was elected because of her looks that would be wrong. Bottom line She IS the best looking AG in the country. And that as they say is a fact.

    April 5, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. Margaret

    Inappropriate.

    April 5, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  15. The Truth

    Its official, we live in a world of thin skinned, weak, pathetic people. If she called him the most handsome president ever there would not be any news story. So that means if he makes the same type of compliment then all those offended are hypocrits and their opinions mean nothing.

    For all those who find this offensive you are hereby charged with making a list of all words and phrases that can no longer be used and publish it for the world to see and heed. Once you put the list together I bet every word will no longer be allowable. Therefore you are hereby charged with creating a whole new means of communication for humanity.

    April 5, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  16. Skarphace

    If you want to know whether or not it was a compliment or innappropriate, all you have to do is ask Kamala Harris.

    If she took it as a compliment, then it was a compliment. End of story.

    April 5, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  17. Hamlet

    @Pismire it's not the fact that people have different opinions that we can't make laws anymore, that has and will always be the case. It's the fact that people with different opinions don't believe other's have the right to a differing opinion and dig their heels in and don't bother to compromise at all... that is why we can't make laws anymore

    April 5, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  18. Ken

    Perhaps a compliment to her, but what about the other seven female attorney generals in the U.S. that he just called out for being hideous trolls?

    April 5, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  19. Rich

    You heard it, men. We're no longer allowed to compliment women on their looks. I'm sure that's what women want, a world where they never hear a positive word about that particular facet of themselves.

    April 5, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  20. Kraas

    Sometimes, it's not about whether or not a comment itself is bad, but how it's going to be interpreted by others.

    April 5, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  21. ST

    Folks, tell me! should the President apologise to this woman because he said she is good looking while she is!!
    Get over it and come up with something which makes sense, not this one!

    April 5, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  22. TiredODaCrap

    Of course there was no malice – in fact, he meant it as a compliment and how dare anyone take it any other way! I mean, he's the half-black, Democratic President of the US. Of course it doesn't matter what comes out of his mouth, only what his intent was in the comment. Had he been in any other demographic (or not the Pres) the news media would have shouted down from the mountains about what came out of his mouth – regardless of the intent!
    Typical example of the pathetic double standard in our liberal media!

    April 5, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  23. Name

    When republicans crying for this kind of trivial issue they will lose legitimacy for any complain they may have in the future.Totaly they are showing how unreasonable they are.

    April 5, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  24. Steve Mison

    I don't think it was inappropriate, but the whole country jumped on Brent Musberger when he said a woman was beautiful while broadcasting the Alabama Notre Dame game. I want the same outcry and outrage, now.

    April 5, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  25. midwestmatt

    Hmmm...typical over response to non-issue.

    He paid her several compliments starting with some about her abilities and brains.

    All of us like to be told we're attractive and for those on the left and right complaining about this, get a life.

    April 5, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
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