April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
10 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.

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"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.

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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. daniel compton

    To me its freedom of speech...both are smart people....and hard workers!!!!!!

    April 7, 2013 01:23 am at 1:23 am |
  2. Theseus

    I think it's important to ask HER how SHE feels about the remark. I personally think it was a light hearted joke at a private event and a compliment. He didn't say anything about her body or anything sexual, and I have feeling if he would have said "the most beautiful" instead of "the hottest" then it would be a different article entirely. It's simple for men, we NEVER EVER care if a woman thinks we're hot, or comments on how hot we are in public. It's just a mystery to us why women wouldn't respond the same. Being attractive is promoted EVERYWHERE in America, but you're sexist for acknowledging it in a woman? Only in America, the country of backwards thinking.

    April 7, 2013 02:26 am at 2:26 am |
  3. Really

    The POTUS should Never have to say HE is SORRY. This Woman needs to be fired. She has no morals or ethics and at best, she is average looking. Uncalled for response = poor judgement. PeaceAll.

    April 7, 2013 03:22 am at 3:22 am |
  4. Anonymous

    he shouldn't call anyone best looking but his wife. that was wrong of him to call another woman good looking have respect for your wife... obama

    April 7, 2013 04:05 am at 4:05 am |
  5. mmi16

    If looks are the ONLY thing a person has – it is not appropriate – with the qualifications that were mentioned prior to the mention of looks, those who are upset should look at themselves as the ones being inappropriated.

    April 7, 2013 06:17 am at 6:17 am |
  6. Name

    @name fannie...He apologized to her because of the reaction by some that his complement was sexist. Not because he did anything wrong. First off they are old friends, he has known her for some time. Secondly, Obama did comment about her professional qualifications and abilities prior to that compliment. Lastly, why is this even an issue?!? Obama simply said she was beautiful, he did not comment on specific qualities that make her such. It's ridiculous that with all the real problems going on all over the world that this is even an issue or story!!!

    April 7, 2013 06:43 am at 6:43 am |
  7. derek

    now obama gets to feel what it is like to be republican for a day, as he gets picked on for no good reason. the media needs to find more important information rather than giving people a hard time over compliments.

    April 7, 2013 07:13 am at 7:13 am |
  8. Ken Elliott

    I despise Obama but come on. This PC crap has gone overboard. The man complimented the woman and to make it a sexist inappropriate remark just shows the insecurities of the complainer.

    April 7, 2013 07:38 am at 7:38 am |
  9. Clarke

    Our society has gotta so out of control about everythi

    April 7, 2013 07:58 am at 7:58 am |
  10. Jim

    The comment reveals his thoughts. Instead of focusing on content and meaning, he was thinking – "She is sooooo good looking." Does he care about how he makes Michelle feel? Does he care about the office he represents? He should be so focused on running the country well that he doesn't even notice. And it's amusing how forgiving some are because they voted for Obama. If someone else made the comment....

    April 7, 2013 08:05 am at 8:05 am |
  11. Clarke

    As I was saying, our society has gotta out of control about the way people look, what they say, what they don't say, how they walk, dress, stand, eat, pray, vote. How tall or how short someone is. The list is long, can't we just live and let live
    And respect each other. There are so many more important issues at hand within our own lives and families to handle. I have never seen such nit picking .

    April 7, 2013 08:09 am at 8:09 am |
  12. Kris

    Everyone needs to get a grip. I wouldnot have apologized for the comment. We are getting way to sensitive and we should be more outraged when the republicans continually make rude comments about the looks of femal Democrats. Anyway, relax everyone, he isn't harrassing anyone.

    April 7, 2013 08:13 am at 8:13 am |
  13. Rosie

    If it has nothing to do with your job qualifications it is NOT worthy of comment. Barack, it's the 21st century. Women are SOOOOOO tired of being judged by appearance.I find it troubling that the leader of the free world had to have the gross inappropriate nature of this remark brought to his attention. When will men get it? This is NOT a compliment. It is a sexist reminder-you may have brains, but really to us guys you're just a pretty face !

    April 7, 2013 08:26 am at 8:26 am |
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