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. kayla

    i think people need to get a life. to make a mountain out of a mole hill is really rediculos, what a waste of time and energy.

    April 5, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  2. Lauradet

    Why apologize? the woman is beautiful.

    April 5, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  3. petroskies

    the women know that , the men more of the time judge them, for you know, everybody know, the women know.

    April 5, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  4. SoWhat

    He shoulda complimented her driving, her ability to play sports/games, her cooking, anything but her looks.

    April 5, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  5. tdsdd

    It's ok , he is a lib so that makes it ok

    April 5, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  6. McBob79

    My sense is that this would be highlighted across all media outlets if said by a republican president. I don't have any issues with it, but those that do typically lean left, are highly politically correct and support Obama.

    April 5, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  7. Name

    this is not news this is stupid

    April 5, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  8. espritouvert1

    Oh, for Pete's sake. I'm not an Obama supporter, but this was harmless. Context is everything. In this public context, it was neither leering or hostile. Can't we just say something nice to/about another person once in a while?

    (And for the record, I'm a 60s ear feminist.)

    April 5, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  9. Harvey

    I'm a big believer in equal rights for women. I don't hold the door for them, I don't get up for them, and I don't take my hat off for them. They are just as capable of carrying their own weight, so let them do it.

    April 5, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  10. Kevin

    Seems to me that the previous AGs should be more offended than her....

    April 5, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  11. Abbot

    Liberals and feminsts were the ones upset over it. Normal people supported the ESPN sportscaster and Obama in this case. I am a conservative by the way.

    April 5, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  12. Pair 'O Dimes

    Sëxist or racïst remarks can never be uttered from the mouths of liberals. Doesn't everyone know that???

    April 5, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  13. Ed1

    Little late Biden I meant Obama well same thing never mind.

    April 5, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  14. jw

    Nobody ever called Janet Reno cute..

    April 5, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  15. espritouvert1

    That should have been "60s ERA feminist"!

    April 5, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  16. Ballzack

    Somebody call the wambulance


    April 5, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  17. john

    The truth (sometimes) hurts........

    April 5, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  18. Babyboomer

    I honestly didn't see a problem at first because there's nothing wrong with being smart and attractive at the same time. I guess the problem is that he wouldn't have said something like that to a male AG. So while I am a great supporter of the President, perhaps he shouldn't have made this remark. Glad he apologized for it and I suspect it won't happen again. Now can we move on?

    April 5, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  19. robert

    not good looking

    April 5, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  20. Davin

    Pretty ridiculous that a compliment is offered to a close friend in an informal setting and you have people freaking out about it. Even more curious, when Scott Brown won his Senate seat there was a member of the RNC who made a comment about him being attractive and there was no outcry. Seems like there is a little bit of a double standard when comparing the informal compliment of a male versus the informal compliment of a female. While I support women's equality issues 100%, I don't like the idea of people telling me that complimenting my male friends' appearances is fine, but complimenting female friends is out of line.

    April 5, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  21. bcares

    I am sick and tired of all the PC police out there. It's gotten so you can't say anything to anybody for fear of offending someone. Lighten up.

    April 5, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  22. DaveinIL

    Hmmm. Maybe his comment and Michele's comment about being a single Mom could be something more that innocent slips of the tongue.

    April 5, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  23. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Sorry that he apologized.

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  24. kathy/Minnesota

    As a women Mr. President I say no need to apologize, and you sir are the "BEST LOOKING PRESIDENT"........EVER!!!

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  25. dave

    There is an aspect to female job performance which is not dependent attractiveness? Isn't that a groundbreaking thought. Next people will say that a woman's chest size isn't her main personality characteristic. 21st century I guess.

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
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