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. eli

    I dont care if it was a Republican or not, some times people just know that it was not said to be demeaning.

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  2. tm

    Seriously...the news had nothing more important to report than this! Give me a break! It was a compliment, leave it alone already!

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  3. Carl Kerstann

    It's pretty sad when you can't compliment someone. Let's all just pretend we've been neutered and nobody really notices the way we look. I love this country, nobody wants to deal with reality.

    April 5, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  4. tony

    "by far the best looking attorney general., I'd def hit that!" slight editing by fox news.com lol

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  5. mathteacher

    Are you kidding? Why should he have to apologize for something like this? He didn't imply she was successful because she was nice looking. That would require an apology. He made what should have been a harmless remark-even appreciated in my opinion. In the words of Charlie Brown, "Good grief"!

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  6. Jack

    This country is sicker than I thought when a person can't compliment someone on their looks without getting static.

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  7. Rob Jones

    Obama also thought Wasserman-Schultz has a "dazzling smile" when all I see is a bunch of crooked teeth on a very ugly woman, so I wouldn't take it as much of a compliment. Any time CNN wants to downplay a story about Obama it goes on the "Political Ticker" where there always seem to be a preponderance of Obama Koolaid drinkers who would never criticize Dear Leader even when he makes such an obviously inappropriate remark.

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  8. Kris

    Finally he lets his guard down and he shows his true colors of who he is and what he stands for. Surprised he was able to hold off this long

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    Obama loves hi "prpps" loves putting greiving parent on stage for gun control, Handsome people for job positions.. Cops and Fireman on stage to ask for more money and spending for "safety" – when in reality it is Union work...

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  10. DB

    Good God, give me a break.

    April 5, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  11. Rick

    Jesus people... Get an freaking life... ridiculous that someone has to apologize ... for a COMPLIMENT....so sick of the political correct emephhhers....

    April 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  12. Jeff

    We need to lighten up a country! It was a compliment people!! I'm a republican and I fully support Obama on this one. If he said "she's awful at her job and has no business being AG, but hey, she's hot" then that's an issue but c'mon. We're getting to be a nation of crybabies and it's sad!

    April 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  13. Nameben

    No wonder his wife is calling herself a single mom. Hanging out with Tiger, taking separate vacations, maybe a mid life crisis and a future divorce. I notice he never walks with her, always just one of his daughters.

    April 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  14. Rob Jones

    The double standards of liberals, and particularly Obama supporters, never ceases to amaze me.

    April 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  15. justin bieblet

    Personally I think calling her "best looking" shows a sign of favoritism...that's just my take.

    April 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  16. PS

    ....and in the meantime, N Korea is moving two missiles around on rails!

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  17. Jammie

    Everyone just needs to calm down. I am a female, too. I honestly believe that he was giving her a comment. I am not attracted to females but I have no problem telling you that another female is pretty. Every be honest. She is pretty. She sure does look a whole lot better then those old wrinkled men that run our government.

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  18. Jokesterer

    She doesn't look that good. I'd still do her though.

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  19. Joel

    hooray for fake outrage for a compliment between friends, with other merit-based compliments uttered with it, by the way.

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  20. enuftrashtalk

    Ok, from now on, any successful, visible in the media, woman will be labeled as "not very good looking, in spite of her success", or "homely".

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  21. Lynne

    Now retired, but a successful business WOMAN for many years, I think this political correctness stuff has gone way too far. Give me a break. I liked being told that I looked pretty at work!! Geez.....

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  22. Astonished

    I censure thee! Ye of little virtue! Smite him! (Done a worry, He's a cookin' something up)

    April 5, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  23. Justin

    Michelle gonna give Barry a whoopin!

    April 5, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  24. kate

    For God sake have we really reached this point that we can never remark on one's attractiveness?

    April 5, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  25. Marie MD

    I think it ws not a remark he should not have made but to the haters the old man from AZ thought that men would vote with what's under their belt because his candidate had nothing else for those who like that trashy biker look and fheir women stupid!

    April 5, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
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