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. GetReal

    The only ones who have an issue are the ones who are butt ugly.......and never get noticed.

    This is PC run amok!

    April 5, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  2. TAK

    The only people offended by this compliment are those that never get such compliments themselves.

    April 5, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  3. David

    First off, why would that matter what she looks like second maybe beyonce or rihanna can do better job than obama and they look better than ob

    April 5, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  4. may40

    Neither R or D President should speak like that. Goes to show you either he has NO class or he and Mich are having troubles. She did say she was a single mom the other day. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    April 5, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  5. KeninTexas

    This is a tempest in a teapot. Anyone who got upset over Obama's comment, needs to get a life.

    April 5, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  6. KeninTexas

    How silly are people who got upset over the President's remark.

    April 5, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  7. Chilly Willy

    So Obama apologized for the "distraction" his comment caused.
    1. A Republican would have been under fire from liberals and the media if he had said it.
    2. The "apology" would have been insufficient and calls for resignation would be thousand fold.
    3. Obama says it and gets a pass from the media.
    I don't care that he said it, but it royally ..... that the media (CNN) doesn't rake him over the coals as it would any Republican.

    April 5, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    More people searching for something to get offended about.

    April 5, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  9. Ben

    She's actually not very attractive...

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  10. Andrew

    From King George.Dubya “Too many OB/GYN’s aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.” So really... so really?

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  11. JGo2.0

    No doubt had George Bush said the same thing, the mainstream media would be howling, stating he was a knuckle-dragging misogynist.

    BTW, State of Ohio Atty. General Mike DeWine is a very attractive man.

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  12. John

    Don't these women put some effort into looking good when they leave for the office, believe it or not, many successful executives from both genders are far from resembling insects. Your physical appearance is important, that's why cosmetic surgeons thrive in our culture, image matters. Life should be fair, yeah right...

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  13. An Opinion

    WOW – not a very enlightened comment! If this comment was made by a 50 year old white republican all we would hear about is the republican campaign against women and calls for a resignation. If the comment was made by someone in business the DoJ and DoL would be on the case for creating a hostile work environment. In summary – it is good to be POTUS and a friend of the media!

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  14. deb0155

    If a Republican said it – he would have to resign. But, of course, Obama (who truly does believe he's a king), gets a pass. Well, buddy, not from me. You and your spendthrift wife are dirtbags! With his comment and her comment about being a "busy, single mother" leads me to believe things are not going well in their marriage! And, that is their business. My business is how this dirtbag is running the country and he definitely gets an "F" from me. He and his wife are making a mockery of the American people!

    April 5, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  15. pksm112

    Wow ...what ever happen to clean compliments between friends. The President is known for his lighter comical side, some thing that is refreshing in this snide, fake personality world – why was an apology needed? Then again according to the haters he should be scould for passing gas 🙂

    April 5, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  16. Andy

    I cant stand Obama. Feminists suck worse. God forbid the man pay a woman a compliment about how she looks.

    April 5, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  17. Name who?

    Geez. The rare time a man cleanly compliments a women and it's seen as offensive.

    April 5, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  18. William L. Turner

    Oh this is a bunch of politically correct BS. Nothing wrong with complimenting her on her appearance. The notion that only women are judged by their appearance is completely false. While we may not call it the same thing for men, it does exist. Bill Clinton was attractive to women voters. Part of that was his appearance. Media outlets did weigh oin on the attractivness of male politicians. But the femihags want to play the victim card as usual. It only strenghtens their claim for more government funding for their fringe pet causes.

    April 5, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  19. rep

    Never compliment women on their looks. Way too complicated. Lesson learned.

    April 5, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  20. pksm112

    Oh yes and he is also responsible for the heavy snow fall and the river over-flowing !!!!

    April 5, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  21. Doasisaydo

    As a woman, I am not offended at all. I think the only women that would be offended are those that may never get compliments. I work in an office with both males and females. We compliment one another all of the time; from "what a nice tie", "beautiful shoes", "you look very pretty/handsome today", and surprise! We are all okay. We live in a society where when you try to be nice, it's offensive, when you're mean, "you're too thin skinned", it's ridiculous. I hope I never live in a world where we can't acknowledge beauty. In Obama's opinion, Ms. Harris is attractive. That's his right, why not tell her? I certainly wouldn't be offended if a man called me such.

    April 5, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  22. Peter

    Why are people letting themselves get upset about this? This is a non-issue, and no matter how hard one tries to portray it as the manifestation of some terrible thing they think is wrong with the world, it isn't. We fry an awful lot of small fish these days.

    April 5, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  23. Chilly Willy

    A Republican would be raked over the coals. Since it's Obama, he gets a pass.

    April 5, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  24. filthyLiberalDOTcom

    Woop dee doo. (And for ME, as a liberal, I would consider this comment the same no matter who made it.)

    April 5, 2013 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  25. Patriot

    Sad day when you cant say what you think or believe. Sorry this PC is crap.

    April 5, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
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