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. Chuck Finley

    Oh boo-freaking-hoo. In the same sentence he called her intelligent and driven, hardly a patronizing "just a pretty face" compliment. Feminists need to find real issues to complain about.

    April 5, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  2. Paul Meeks

    People! Please! Sometimes this political correctness is getting carried away just a little too far. People in this day and time are just too danged thin skinned. Next thing you know some moron will make some issue about him being black and she's white.

    April 5, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  3. Larry in Houston

    This whole debacle is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. What do you say if somebody says : ""You've got a cute looking baby"" or ""You've got really nice nail polish"" I mean, is it getting to the point where you can't even Look At Someone the wrong way, without getting the riot act ?? I swear, this country is getting more sensitive, day after day. To be perfectly honest – If I was strolling a baby in the mall somewhere, and somebody comes up & says : you've got a cute baby, or says something "Positive" about something I have, or am carrying, or something positive about somebody that I am with, I mean, good grief, people !! I guess if you say something positive, people now days may end up calling the "good remark" Police on you.

    April 5, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  4. barclay donaldson

    ..apologizing for what 98% of people would give/take as a compliment ..correctness gone wild.

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

    Let's face it. Attractiveness generally helps people (men or women) succeed. Beauty, brains, charisma, and self-confidence are usually a winning combination. However, in this era of HR videos and lawsuits, regular working people generally don't say anything about personal appearance out loud. When someone is smart and attractive, they seem to have their acts together, they can more easily become part of the cool crowd, and they can easily influence people. They look like winners and people want to associate with winners. The president shouldn't have said anything publicly. However, it just shows that he is human and is subject to the same cultural and biological influences.

    April 5, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  6. Dave Coyne

    What a bunch of nonsense. Further evidence that those with an agenda to criticize - be it criticizing Obama or criticizing men (as a reactionary feminist) - will always find a way to take the simplest, most innocent thing to seize upon. If JFK Jr. were still around and were atty gen'l somewhere he'd probably make the same remark. Does that make him gay? Does that make him patronizing and belittling? Of course not. The only criticism I have is that Obama didn't have the cojones to stand by what he said and tell the critics to STFU.

    April 5, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  7. Jessica

    To say some one is pretty or nice looking is not a sin. We look a flower and say it's beautiful. We look at a painting and do the same. Can we just stop being so stupid and let some one give and get a compliment. Not everyone is a pervert and we need to quit being so over sensitive. I like when a man (especially my husband) notices my new dress, hair, eyes and I don't take it as if they want me....just admiring a person's being.

    April 5, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  8. Norm

    Some of the childish and uneducated comments here show why the president had to apologize.
    But in all actuality....he's the president of the United States of America.
    He doesn't have to apologize to anyone for anything.
    And Pat F......you're a pig.

    April 5, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  9. dscon

    Michelle said she was a single mom too.
    Maybe she needs to start checking under Oblame's desk?

    April 5, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  10. DisReverant

    No mention of if he has been sleeping on the couch.

    April 5, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  11. wenkpro

    I don't see it as a compliment. I see it as Obama focusing on things that he shouldn't. If I said Liz was by far the best looking commenter on this message board, it would offend other female commenters. Every female is beautiful in her own way, lets not include fashion and looks into politics. This is not a beauty contest.

    April 5, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  12. Larry in Houston

    Good Grief !! This article is getting THIS MANY Responses ??? 461 ??? LOL

    WoW !!

    April 5, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  13. Anonymous

    It's ok.....he 's a democrat, right?

    April 5, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  14. Reflecting Pool

    More than anything, it was a foolhardy misguided attempt to be both funny and complimentary. More public figures get into trouble trying to be "funny and clever" than for any other reason. WHY? Because invariably, these are unscripted, extemporaneous, off-the-cuff aside remarks that, by definition, lack the reflection and scrutiny that their carefully 'scripted' comments have been subjected to. It's fairly easy and common to over-reach to get that laugh – unless it's self-depricating humor.

    April 5, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  15. genie

    Love it! If more people complimented the good of more people in a public manner..the whole world would be different. All you ever hear are the haters...hating on everyone.

    Way to go, Mr. President!!

    April 5, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  16. Linda

    Why can't you be good looking and smart and be complimented on both?Obama can compliment me anytime.

    April 5, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  17. wow

    I Wonder if Michelle, that feels like a Single mom most of the time is going to like it that when her hubby is away he might play , her feelings well maybe they speak for themselves. Maybe she feels that way because it is that way.
    Obama and Harris if they hook up, I think they can both kiss their political careers Goodbye. That would be good reality tv. Who cares nothing gets passed , Hardly nothing. I'm waiting for hillary or 2014 until then who cares.

    April 5, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    this is a non story.

    April 5, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  19. rick

    Not an Obama supporter but, jeez, can't you even try to say something that you mean to be nice without somebody being offended anymore. Give him a break on this one

    April 5, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  20. Nonsense

    This is considered news??

    April 5, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  21. Doc

    He's a Democrat...he can make comments like that. He has a pass from media.

    April 5, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  22. jimh16

    i think people are probably taking this out of context. I think it was said in a joking manner more to point fun at the fact that all the attorney's are men. its not like he got down on bended knee and confessed his undying love..geez

    April 5, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  23. JS

    Simultaneous to this, Michelle Obama slips and says she's a single mother - Now we know why.– corrupt Obama is obviously having an affair with Kamala Harris. Obama is a CHEAT in his personal life as well as EVERYTHING he does in his socialist rule of SCAMerica.

    April 5, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  24. doc77

    Do we not have anything more important to talk about/report than this clap-trap? God help us.

    April 5, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  25. brents

    I have been watching CNN for the past hour and have heard about nothing but the President's remark to Kamala Harris. Enough already. It's a non-issue. If the lady has a problem with it, she and the President should discuss it between themselves. Surely there are more important issues such as what we're going to do with the madman in Korea. The media make entirely too much out of such things.

    April 5, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
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