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. Paul Hogue

    I'm an Obama supporter, and I was disappointed by the comment. It was not his brightest moment. I don't recall a president commenting on how rugged their VP looks, specifically because it detracts from the reason they are hired.

    As far as the difference about how conservatives and liberals approach this situation, let's note that he genuinely apologized, both publicly and privately. I've lost count of the number of conservatives who say something far, far worse, and only show regret for "choice of words." I think of Limbaugh's long-winded self-defense in the Sandra Fluke controversy, where he only managed at the end of the statement to apologize for "insulting word choice," rather than apologizing for trying to destroy someone's reputation in a national radio show because they disagree.

    April 5, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  2. Susan

    I don't know. You kind of get to a certain level of professionalism where you don't have to tell the guy that it's a boneheaded move to comment on a woman's attractiveness while listing her accomplishments. I guess we have to send Mr. President to the SH workshops....

    April 5, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  3. teller of truth

    O'Bama should apologize becasue he was WRONG. Heck, Harris ain't even the best looking Democrat AG, that's Kane of PA. and even she ain't even as attracrtive as Bondi of FLORIDA!!!!

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

    Must be a really slow news day! Maybe North Korea will change that!

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

    Janet Reno is offended by those remarks.

    April 5, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  6. lvsingleton

    The only person who should get an apology is the female herself if she felt degraded. They don't need to make a public announcement that the president apologized. The US is full of a bunch of sissies.

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

    It was a Compliment!! Why make something out of Nothing?!! – @Marita.

    April 5, 2013 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  8. Rob Jones

    The only reason it is newsworthy to me is because Obama said it. I honestly would know better than to say something like that, but I don't particularly care if that it was said. It is exactly that HE said it because he is a hypocrite of the highest order. Liberals are all about PC and villifying conservatives for being anti-woman even though that is utter nonesense. They hold up Obama as some perfect man, so evolved when it turns out he has far fewer women in positions of power than his predecessor and pays them less–all while taking them for granted. Liberal women and blacks are the most gullible 2 groups groups, no doubt about it. Obama has both wrapped so tight around his finger, he need never worry about their votes or even being held to account.

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

    Now if he'd call her an ugly.....

    April 5, 2013 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  10. Pat F

    He's a pig – pretty simple.

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

    "he said she was tough, i think that's offensive ... means she's butch or something like that"

    Nah...clearly he was referring to her chewability.

    Grow up.

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

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general,"...This is the comment that's causing such an uproar and outrage??...I'm sorry, I just have to laugh and some of the other comments on this thread...just ridiculous..

    April 5, 2013 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  13. Miami Vice

    How many times in the past 5 years have female journalists/presenters and the like, called Obama out for being "fit" and attractive, yet not once did this get pulled up. But, because its now a woman, its all wrong.

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

    It was totally inappropiate. It was a professional setting and should be dealt with that way concentrating on her professional skills not his opinion on her looks. He should keep his personal opinions to himself or in a private setting. It would vice versa if it was a woman speaking pubicly at a microphone about a male colleague (i..e. "and he is so good looking"). I actually had this happen once being introduced in a large meeting as new employee and one the male executives announced and she is definitely good looking compared to her past employee. So innappropriate. I turned completely red and felt very awkward.

    April 5, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  15. Skyler

    How does Ms. Harris feel about this? It's up to her, not us, to decide whether it was in any way a disparaging remark.

    April 5, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  16. Ashley

    It's all about context. While compliments on appearance aren't a bad thing, the emphasis on looks, especially for women, often overshadows actual accomplishments and skills–In a professional setting, that can be problematic. It is best to leave comments like that, no matter their intention, in more casual settings.

    (Also, I think both parties are being hilarious right now trying to cheap shot the other side.)

    April 5, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  17. Sniffit

    I love that all the GOP/Teatrolls think they're comments aren't doing more damage to their brand. Please proceed, ya little turds.

    April 5, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  18. Pat in IL

    He first complimented her intelligence, etc., then threw in a friendly, personal remark that was also complimentary. Anyone who wants to make something negative about that needs to get a life of their own.

    April 5, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  19. t3chn0ph0b3

    The hypocrisy of GOPers jumping on Obama for misogyny is thoroughly nauseating.

    April 5, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  20. Annie

    If the President called me brilliant, dedicated, tough & beautiful I'd be more than flattered. It's a compliment!

    April 5, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  21. Joe

    Get Real, prople! I can't stand Obama- but I gotta say- this is crazy. The guy compliments her by describing her as "brilliant" and "dedicated" and "tough" and then says she is the best looking- and everyone is all up in arms about that?!? Get a life!!

    April 5, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  22. JP

    If a republican said the same. The war against women crusaders will jump in

    April 5, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  23. Martin Woolf

    For a brilliant academic and world leader, a moronic statement.

    April 5, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  24. renegade98

    Let's all just pack on a 100 lbs and go out looking for a job. See how far that gets us in the real world.

    April 5, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  25. achepotle

    Classy move to apologize...we all know our President didn't mean any disrespect. He leads us in the class department.

    April 5, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
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