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. Sniffit

    BTW, CNN, studies shwo that Twitter and social media don't actually reflect what scientific poll results will show as the prevailing perceptions amongst the public. Places like the twitterverse and facebook are nothing more than small isolated playgrounds within a much larger context. Stop pretending they're a free source of answers to the question of "what's everyone thinking?" They're not indicative of that whatsoever.

    April 5, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  2. WrongIsWrong

    The comment was wrong! The republican party did the same thing to Colbert Busch (D) running in SC recently. This is not a compliment! I do not care who is saying it; no one deserves a pass. An apology on both sides would be the right thing, but I will not hold my breath.

    April 5, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  3. Candle

    If he were conservative, it would've been chauvinistic. Where he's liberal, it was merely a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  4. Lulany

    As a woman I often get annoyed at comments and general attitude that focus mainly on women's appearance but it seems to me that Obama was just alluding to her being a woman among men. It's a comment you often hear from men to point out that a woman is more pleasant to the eye from their standpoint that other men. I don't see much harm in that especially coming from a man who is surrounded by strong women and clearly has the highest respect for them.

    April 5, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  5. Dena

    I agree it's just a compliment. But I bet it wouldn't be seen as harmless if Bush had said it. Then the media would have reported on his "boorish" behavior. It'd be great if the media could try treat politicians equally regardless of party.

    April 5, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  6. Dominican mama 4 Obama


    It's Obama so it was a compliment of course
    Consider the source.

    April 5, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  7. Anonymous

    I agree with Tony in Maine. It's a compliment and no big deal. Just get on with your lives and not waste time on such trivia like I'm doing! I'm retired, so I have the time.

    April 5, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  8. Pismire

    People are entitled to their own opinions. Some think it was disrespectful, others think it was a compliment.
    Some think its okay to abort babies, some don't.
    Some think its fine to own a gun, some do not.
    Some think there's nothing wrong with a man becoming a woman and competing in a women's MMA fight and some do not.
    Some think its perfectly fine for men to marry men and some do not.

    See how that works?

    That's why its impossible to make law anymore.

    April 5, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  9. Droop

    Give me a break! Harmless comment was just good conversation.

    April 5, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  10. Lynda/Minnesota

    You know CNN, I'm going to pass on this earth shattering news. Again.
    And, yeah - I know.
    I had to click on the story to give it a really, really big thumbs down YAWN.

    April 5, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  11. T

    I wonder who the worst looking attorney general is?

    April 5, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  12. Sniffit

    "comments and general attitude that focus mainly on women's appearance "

    Except here it was mentioned as an aside after the main focus of his comments being her highly capable, intelligent and beneficial contributions to her job and society.

    April 5, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  13. Lilli

    AG Harris is BEAUTIFUL and an intellectual!! What's the problem, haters? And POTUS is handsome and brillant!!! What's does that make me????....

    April 5, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  14. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    It's clearly a compliment. Who doesn't like to be told they look GOOD?
    Oh I don't know...but women like Fair is Fair make it sound as if they'd just as soon sue you than accept a compliment for what it was...a compliment.
    Pity how some women forget what it is like to be a woman.
    If that ever happens to me just shoot me! Lol!

    April 5, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  15. really?

    First you read "happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general", then a little further you read, "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Hmm, why would they put that first bit in, oh right to bias the reader's emotions for impact. Don't let yourself be so easily manipulated.

    April 5, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  16. dgoren1

    Wow. People really need to lighten up and stick to real issues. Fact is, I can't think of too many Obama policies that I agree with, and didn't vote for him, but this is nothing. This is a compliment. If a women made the same comment about a man, the man would feel flattered and everybody would have a nice little chuckle. Yes, her experience and abilities are the only thing that counts, but I think people get that. There's plenty to criticize Obama about. This is certainly not one of them. I also don't care if he takes a vacation once in awhile.

    April 5, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  17. Boo

    Who cares? This is a non-issue...

    April 5, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  18. Jimmy

    Since the POTUS considers himself "eye candy".
    Therefore looks are important!
    I sure that's part of the reason he got where he is as well.

    April 5, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  19. rla

    no problem with the compliment- if a republican had said this the streets would run red with blood as the war on women nitwits would be beating their chests

    April 5, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  20. Oh, the times, they are a changin...

    What would be the reaction of an openly gay president paying the same compliment to an attractive MALE Attorney General, I wonder...

    April 5, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  21. Cecil

    The President paid a woman a compliment. He has also stated on different occasions someone was a strong man. It was a compliment. Now if Mrs. Harris has a problem with the statement she has a right. I don't believe she does because they are long time friends. If Michelle has a problem then the President is in trouble, and can expect a few nights on the couch, but I personally don't see that happening either. When did it become a crime to tell someone they look nice and why?

    April 5, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  22. Gurgyl

    Is she an Indian lady from India. Name sounds India lady name...

    April 5, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  23. Oh, the times, they are a changin...

    And while I am at it, what the heck is the deal with Obama's taste?

    April 5, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  24. ART

    To Christa Bennet YUK is right, thats the word that comes to mind after seeing you picture

    April 5, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  25. Romney is Still NOT My Hero


    If he were conservative, it would've been chauvinistic. Where he's liberal, it was merely a compliment.

    A good looking, liberal president giving a woman a compliment is far better than a compliment from a conservative old, stale, pale male any day.

    April 5, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
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