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. Anonymous

    Being politically correct is such hogwash! It makes me puke when I read what some of the people say. So what if he thinks she is attractive. And, make absolutely no mistake about it – it doens't happen SOLELY to women. Women state the exact same things about men. And, like it or not, good looking people often DO get the best of the cards. That's life. Pull up your panties and learn to live in the real world and stop your whining.

    April 5, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  2. John Lubeck

    A little too much political correctness for me.

    April 5, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  3. Jackson

    he said she was tough, i think that's offensive ... means she's butch or something like that ... he also said she's dedicated, does that mean he was implying other women aren't dedicated? how far should we go with his comments

    April 5, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  4. Rob Jones

    I'm sure Napalatano and Kagan and all the other homely feminists who support him appreciated Obama's observation.

    April 5, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  5. David D.

    "Yuck, @BarackObama, inappropriate, disrespectful comment on Kamala Harris' appearance. Let's stick to what's important: how she does her job" Yes, let's look at how she does her job. Edwin Ramos, an MS-13 illegal alien had been arrested and released several times in San Francisco as she was DA there. After his last release, he shot three men, a father and two adult sons who got lost in the neighborhood where Ramos was. As they drove by, he fired repeatedly into their car with an AK-47 killing all three outright. His explanation: Ramos thought they were rival gang members. Kamala Harris had been in SFPD's custody for other crimes before – they would not call federal authorities due to San Francisco's "Sanctuary City" policy – to have Ramos deported. Even though he was known to be a member in a notoriously violent gang, his last arrest prior to the killing had put him in a youth offender confinement facility. Basically an unguarded halfway house, which Ramos simply walked away from.

    This is but one example of how Kamala Harris works. When she wasn't being Willie Brown's mattress, she was releasing violent people into the community and being soft on all other criminals. Saying she's corrupt and an enemy of the public is being too nice.

    And yet, she got elected to the AG position in California.

    No wonder none of us in California have any faith left in government.

    We will never forget Anthony Bologna and his sons, Michael and Matthew that were killed due to the incompetence and unlawful behavior of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.

    April 5, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  6. John Stockton

    I don't remember Bush or Cheney apologizing for anything. Ever. Oh, I forgot; they never did anyhting wrong. Either that or it's okay if you're a republican.

    April 5, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  7. retief1954

    I'm guessing he's resolved to not allow himself to make that sort of public observation about a colleague again 🙂 Everyone thinks those kinds of thoughts privately but our society isn't at a place where it's regarded as okay. Women certainly have a legitimate point about wanting to be evaluated on their skills, not their looks. Mistake by the President, but not a serious one, except maybe at Fox News and the RNC.

    April 5, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  8. Rob Jones

    Is her name really Kamala? That's rich.

    April 5, 2013 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  9. comeon

    Florida's Attorney General is far more attractive.

    April 5, 2013 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  10. Boomer in Mo

    Everyone is far to sensitive and critical. We all say inappropriate things from time to time. Me a lot of the time. Get over it already. He shouldn't have said it. He said he was sorry. Story over.

    April 5, 2013 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  11. Steve

    As a Republican, I must say that is the first time Obama has said anything that makes sense.

    Complimenting a beautiful woman should never go out of style.

    April 5, 2013 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  12. Mike

    I'd like you to meet my wife. She is one of the strongest, brightest and toughest women on the earth. She also happens to be one of the most beautiful women I have ever met.

    Got a problem with that?

    April 5, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  13. Gene (SOCAL)

    Sounds like the president is playing just a little too much golf with Tiger! Just think we have 3+ years of his antics.

    April 5, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  14. taurran

    Apparently you can't compliment anyone anymore, without being a "bigot". Lighten up, people! Your feelings are ruining this country.

    April 5, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  15. BR

    It is not so much the comment, which most women like to hear, it was the setting. Very inappropriate to mention in conjunction with her ability to do her job and in front of a large audience.

    April 5, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  16. Be Sane

    Seriously people, get a life. It was a COMPLEMENT!

    April 5, 2013 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  17. S.B. Stein E.B. NJ

    Did no one read the beginning of the quote where he calls her tough and dedicated? This shouldn't be a problem.

    April 5, 2013 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  18. Richard L Smith

    What is the writer's name – Jonathan Chiat or Chait? The CNN poster used both spellings within two sentences of each other. No matter, he is a nitpicking moron on an apparent slow news day. First off, what Obama said was his opinion. Who the hell are you to decide whether or not it was a compliment? Your comments are nothing more than your opinion. Since when did the President of the United States lose his first amendment rights? I regret he apologized, he did nothing more than give Chait/Chiat and the other nitwits credibility.

    April 5, 2013 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  19. How Co

    A world where paying someone a complement is forbidden is not a world I will allow to exist. I will complement and offer the gift of validation as often as I can. Appearance, talent, heart, perseverance, handwriting and table manners are all but a few of the complements I will give.

    April 5, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  20. Jeff

    As a Republican, I voted for the President partly because I am dismayed my party's bizarre stance of social regulation. That said, while the President's comments do not strike me as a huge deal, they were nevertheless not appropriate at a formal, professional function such as this. It is a newsworthy event because it shows that, even among so-called progressive leaders, looks still rank right up there with professional skills when a woman's career is described.

    April 5, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  21. john graves

    give it a break people. If anyone else had made that statement nothing would have been said. Why then can't the president say it. Some people would gripe if they won a million dollars wanting a million plus. What have we become to stoop so low as to keep anone from saying anything .......

    April 5, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  22. taurran

    People in this story are pathetic. Can't even compliment someone in this country anymore without being labeled a "bigot". I guess he knows what it's like when you're called racist for supporting an opposing candidate...

    April 5, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    Really? This is utterly unimportant in the scheme of things. I'm amazed you're wasting space on this.

    April 5, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  24. Mary Beth Nelsen

    Have we really reached the point where we can't give or receive compliments graciously? It's like those Neanderthals who slam doors in women's faces and claim it's because it's what those "wimmin libbbers" want. How about just holding the door open, offering a seat, for ANYONE, as if your parents had actually taught you manners?

    April 5, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  25. Tam

    Good grief. What he said was true. And he said it lightly and politely. Get a life, people

    April 5, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
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