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. Jonathan

    Since when does someone have to apologize for a compliment?

    April 5, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  2. Daniel

    I think some people need to relax. We have become a culture in which we cannot say anything in fear of upsetting someone. Relax. Life does not have to be so serious.

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  3. Rob

    Gimme a break

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  4. shamsky24

    "Let me guess. People who support Obama were fine with it, people who don't support Obama were offended. And if it was a Republican who made the remark the only thing that would be different the people who were ok and the people who were offended would be reversed."

    Yeah, that about sums it up.

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  5. shawn

    oh for the pity of people...[laughing] it was a compliment obviously and she does her job or would not have the job. What he said was harmless . If women who have a fit over such a comment .. for pity sake [get over it] and worse yet he feels he has to apologis for making a simple comment that has nothing to do with how a woman does her job. This president is admonished for going to the bathroom . grow up folks, more much more to worry about. [ rolls eyes]

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  6. massms

    Harris isn't even attractive, she's hardly worthy of being called the "best looking". Obama's taste is in his mouth...but then look at what he married.

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  7. Will Atlanta

    We obviously need to get over ourselves don't we? His original comment meant no harm whatsoever. Grow up people.

    April 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  8. TBone

    Grow a set people ! It seems every fanatic's developed a call to duty to pick out something meaningless to be offended by daily. I have yet to meet the lady who got offended being complimented on her looks. I get when two dogs meet,they often stick their noses where it doesn't belong.You out there with this compulsion to whine, what's your excuse?

    April 5, 2013 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  9. MrMister

    The blind leading the blind...............

    April 5, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  10. fouilleur

    Harris isn't even attractive, she's hardly worthy of being called the "best looking". Obama's taste is in his mouth...but then look at what he married.

    April 5, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  11. WhoCares

    Shes a good looking redbone

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  12. Jess

    I'm an Obama supporter and felt the comment was offensive. Women should not be judged on their looks, attractive or not, it should play no role in determining one's work performance.

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  13. Canadianbacon

    She should be grateful for the compliment. Truth is, she is one rough-looking woman. But then again, the First Lady looks like she got smashed in the face with a trash can lid, and her fat arms, legs, and behind are simply amusing, considering she spends so much time telling others how to excersice and eat better. The President needs his eyes checked. His idea of beauty is a bit off.

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  14. Jocho Johnson

    Ah come on there's plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Obama

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  15. TrudyBird

    Geez... lighten up. Everyone's mad about something.

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  16. massms

    Harris isn't even attractive, she's hardly worthy of being called the "best looking". 0bama's taste is in his mouth...but then look at what he married.

    April 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  17. Heather

    I can't even believe how ridiculous this is! Pretty soon nobody is going to be able the open their mouths! He was trying to make a little joke – lighten up people! He didn't say anything to offend anybody, and he said nothing that would question her ability.

    April 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  18. David

    I'm definitely NOT an Obama supporter but I am completely OK with the comment. He paid the lady a compliment, get over it. It's ridiculous these days; a public figure can't open his or her mouth without "offending" someone.

    April 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  19. Chris

    Yeah I have to say that if this were a republican president there would have been outrage from Feminist groups around the country but since it's Obama they're more quiet than they normally would be.

    April 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  20. Bill D

    I'm not an Obama supporter, but I don't see anything wrong with what he said. These politically correct people kill me. What he said should be taken at face value, which was meant as a compliment. Geesh!

    April 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  21. petroskies

    the women don't want believe but the real true is that the men value them for their looking , they know that

    April 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  22. SouthernGentleman

    I believe that Obama is one of the worst presidents we have ever had. But there was nothing wrong with what he said. People are far too sensitive.

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  23. Gary R

    I really don't see any issue with it. I have enough on my hands doing my own job. And no, I'm not that good-looking.

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  24. AnnoyedByPolitics

    I don't support Obama, but this comment wasn't that bad, nor does it really deserve this much attention. There's plenty he DESERVES criticism on. Going after this is just over sensitive political correctness fluff.

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  25. Scranton

    Woof! If that's his idea of beauty, then I now understand how he can stay with his linebacker wife.

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
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