April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
9 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. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    It was a compliment for Christ sake. Sheeesh! He was stating the obvious. She's frickin hot!

    April 5, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  2. Fair is Fair

    The left, no doubt, will put their double-standard in full view by defending Obama on this.

    Hey Obama... YOU acted stupidly.

    April 5, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  3. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Here's for words for you: BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN

    April 5, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  4. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    MSM, how about you go to the source and ask her if she took offense to the compliment rather than making news for entertainment purposes.

    April 5, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  5. obama victim

    michelle said she was a single mom.............trouble in paradise??

    April 5, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  6. Warren

    How did she take it?? LOL

    April 5, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  7. wrm

    It's Obama so it was a compliment of course; perfectly okay.


    April 5, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  8. Tony in Maine

    Oh, for God's sake. Grow up!

    April 5, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  9. lord toronaga

    Ok with me.

    April 5, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  10. scarf

    While I think he shouldn't have said what he said, no Republican has a right to criticize him for it. At the Republican National Convention, immediately following the nomination of Sarah Palin for VP, Republican after Republican commented on her looks. I distinctly remember one guy saying she was "easy on the eyes." If Republicans want to criticize Obama for this statement, I have one thing to say to them. Charity begins at home.

    April 5, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  11. VPIE91

    Complement? Yes, but if a Republican said it we'd be having a week long discourse on sexism and equal rights.

    April 5, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  12. Be honest

    The Left had a field day with the man who told a lady that she'd make a good wife – but here they all are excusing Obama AGAIN for exactly the same thing!!!! It was those O'B apologists who landed the USA with a proven inept POTUS for a second term.

    April 5, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  13. Anthony

    Oh God, the news has gotten sooooo stupid. It was a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  14. eagerliving

    He's married, so shouldn't be saying that stuff anyway, even if he was just the slurpee clerk at the 7-11. Classless. But we knew that about Obama anyway...or at least 48% of voters did. The rest of you are like him, "Ooooh, shiny!"

    April 5, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    Why are we surprised at his comments? This so-called President is bedazzled by Hollywood, is very superficial himself so it was no Freudian slip. It just revealed the charactor (or lack of) of this man.

    April 5, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  16. Sniffit

    Wow...ressurecting it with a question that's blatantly bent towards the kind of talking points the Teatrolls desperately want to generate about it. Meanwhile, the GOP/Teatrolls are still busy equating women who believe they have a right to choose with supporting infantcide and enacting legislation that attempts to restrct their rights and their practical access to necessary and often life-saving reproductive goods and services. The MSM running with this to create a false equivalence between a better-left-unsaid compliment and calling the majority of women baby murderers was irritatingly predictable.

    April 5, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  17. Gregory M. Newbold

    It was more than an apperance compliment. He deftly made the point that she`s a "girl" and not a "boy", oh and by the way, she IS the AG of one of our biggest states. Mr. Obama has given her additional visibility on the nation Democratic stage that goes beyond her appearance at the 2012 Convention.

    Kamala can hold her own intellectually and if her looks garner 10% of the attention of Ms. Palin, the rightwing will be very afraid. How would any democrat ignore Kamala for a role [maybe cabinet] in 2016?

    April 5, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  18. ea

    This is news? No wonder CNN is last in the ratings. Typical propaganda. Ofc nothing about how ObamaCare is going to strangle businesses.

    April 5, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  19. Romney is Still NOT My Hero

    Have you seen most of the women in politics? He couldn't believe his eyes, he opened his mouth and the truth fell out. It's clearly a compliment. Who doesn't like to be told they look GOOD?

    April 5, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  20. Norm

    It doesn't matter what PRESIDENT Obama says or does...the right wing racists will twist it into something bad as soon as possible.

    April 5, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  21. Sean

    Its easy to find out if its a compliment or sexist. Imagine Bush said this and the outfall that would happen. Unless of course you are racist and hold liberal black politicians to lower standards than you would hold a white conservative politician.

    April 5, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  22. james pfeiffer

    Is everything political for goodness sake? I happen to be a man (something I had little control over) and a woman came up to me in the parking lot at the golf course and said "you have the most beautiful hair". I was speechless...but you know, it really made a 65 year old guy feel pretty good. If this silly politicalizing of just about everything is allowed to run its course, soon we'll all be just staring dumbly at one another from the fear of saying something wrong. Imagine that...a humorless nation of zombies.

    April 5, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  23. 1990tiger

    ummmm......that would be "four", not "for"

    While it may have been intended as a compliment (or a joke?....have you seen the lady???), the remark was sexist and inappropriate for a President to make.

    April 5, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  24. John

    I wonder if he finds Eric Holder handsome?
    No double standard here libs...

    April 5, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  25. bigdicmegee


    She took it all in

    April 5, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
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