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. NotYoDaddy

    Garden Hose
    Golf Ball

    Yeah, let me know how she does.

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  2. Larry

    If obummer said the Janet Reno was by far the ugliest attorney general ever, I don't think there would have been any disagreement.

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

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

    April 5, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  4. I'm confused

    I have tremendous respect for President Obama but I find it hard to support the Democratic party specifically because of feminist nonsense like this... There is actually NOTHING that I have less respect or more disdain for than American feminism and for that reason, I'm glad President Obama won't be running for office again so I don't have to support the Democratic Party in any more elections!!!

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

    TEA/GOP should do their job as legislators instead of harping on this nonsense. Sorry examples for America.

    April 5, 2013 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  6. Bob

    Lighten up, offended people.

    April 5, 2013 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  7. fouillieur

    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 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  8. barbara451

    Look at it this way. How many times do you hear a male government employee, any male government employee, described by the way her looks. Name one. The majority of males include the way a woman looks as an estimation of her value. Facts are facts.

    April 5, 2013 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  9. EricMatthews

    Is it possible to stop over-thinking things? I mean seriously, don't people have more to whine about? President gave her a compliment and did not belittle anyone in the process. You cannot control your own Genetics. Ugly people know they were born that way, and so do attractive people. It's not a choice you make. He listed her brilliance, her dedication, her toughness, and then called her the best looking ATTORNEY GENERAL in an attempt at humor. The only possible people who could get offended by that statement are other ATTORNEY GENERAL's, but I think they are also smart enough to get the joke. Unfortunately, some people..ie whiners, are not intelligent enough to get the joke apparently, and are over-thinking it, and trying to cause an uproar. Can't they find something better to do, that actually benefits society, instead of detracting from it?

    April 5, 2013 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  10. chris

    I am not a democrat...and I can't believe this is a story. When you're in a position of authority where just about everything you say is recorded in one form or another, you're bound to get your foot near your mouth once in awhile, or say something in an effort to lighten the mood that you wish you hadn't. Let's relax a little on the outrage over everything.

    April 5, 2013 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  11. flaitguy

    Oddly, I took it completely differently than many. I saw it as a joke on all the male attorney generals before her.

    April 5, 2013 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  12. JJ

    Not the worse that has happened.............

    April 5, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  13. longtooth

    All this proves is that Obama is a breathing male. He and she are friends, and his less than witty quip is not a hanging offense. Is this all we have to ponder?

    April 5, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  14. betterdays

    Lady Looks Like a Dude

    April 5, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  15. Robert

    She's not very pretty. But remember, compared to Michelle, she's a 10. Can't blame Barack for looking.

    April 5, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  16. J Robinson

    Only a pro-Hillary, hyper feminist would have a problem with the President's remark.

    April 5, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  17. Robert

    She's not very pretty. But remember, compared to Michelle, she's a 10.

    April 5, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  18. johngf

    This is just one comment and one of the least inappropriate ones Pres. Obama has made; more to come.

    April 5, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |

    what isn't he sorry about

    April 5, 2013 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  20. flaitguy

    I saw it as more of a joke against all the male attorney generals who came before her.

    April 5, 2013 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  21. Barry Obama, NJ, US

    only Barry would think she is pretty

    April 5, 2013 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  22. massms

    Harris isn't even attractiv, certainly not worthy of being called the "best looking". O's taste in women leaves a lot to be desired...look at what he married.

    April 5, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  23. MAS

    Not a Obama supporter- but this is silly. He complimented her on her abilities and her looks. Way too much time spent on PC. Lets talk about something that really matters like North Korea or the deficient.

    April 5, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  24. mrskool

    Just one more comment blown totally out of proportion by the always offended politically incorrect judgement folks and jumped on by the harpie media ... same old story ...

    April 5, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  25. espritouvert1

    Oh, for Pete's sake. I'm not an Obama fan, but this was harmless. Context is everything. Said in such a public forum, it was not leering or hostile. Can't we just say nice things to/about people some of the time?

    (And for the record, I'm a 60s generation feminist!)

    April 5, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
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