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. leelanau

    Obama......still a dewche.

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  2. Gary

    Political correctness run amok. A compliment and nothing more.

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  3. Darryl

    Wow, what physcopathetic peoples comments ! It was a compliment, for Gods sake. Get a LIFE people.

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  4. vic , nashville ,tn

    Kamala Harries is smart and she is very pretty accept the facts it was compliment

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  5. jnpa

    They are old friends and good friends, so who really cares? Some people will make an issue out of anything!

    April 5, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  6. Boring Media Hype

    Oh, and I'm not at all a fan of Nobama...but c'mon folks...really???

    April 5, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  7. Knupedout1911

    Why is this even news?

    April 5, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  8. JohnRJohnson

    Obama is rightfully called out for this remark. His comments, as POTUS, should be limited to compliments about her intelligence and competence. Her looks are not only irrelevant, but they are highly subjective. I think, in this case, Obama went too far trying to be nice.

    April 5, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  9. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Larry in Houston

    This whole debacle is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of
    No. No it isn't Larry, unfortunately.
    Think. Think back on what you've seen "debated" on this thread in regards to THIS POTUS and/or FLOTUS.
    You don't have to go too far back either......

    April 5, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  10. NameLeeAT

    This feigned indignation is laughable.

    April 5, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  11. Thebest

    It is so shameful that the world is continuously drifting toward sin. When did it become disgraceful to call a woman beautiful or even a man handsome. Because people live in sin, anything good sounds evil to them unless it is about them. Any man or woman who says it is disgraceful to call a woman beautiful is a disgrace to society. They are themselves very ugly and jealous. They are haters of fellow human beings. Did God not make women beautiful? What makes it wrong to say it? Isn't Kamala Harris beautiful? Obama is human, he is a man. He is real and so is Kamala.
    You ugly people who have no one to call you pretty, stop nagging and barking. I am only mad that Obama apologized for nothing. Kamala, be happy, you are beautiful.

    April 5, 2013 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  12. Tim

    Lighten up, I'm not a big fan of the man, I'm sure he meant no disrespect. With all that is going on in this country this makes the news.....really!

    April 5, 2013 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  13. Yag Kosha

    It is a compliment, I have no problem with the man saying what he thinks. It also happens to be true.

    April 5, 2013 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  14. Courtney

    No big deal.

    April 5, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  15. Mavent

    leelanau... still a nobody.

    April 5, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  16. Arkay

    So, if saying someone is good looking is now an insult, would it be a compliment to call someone ugly? This is stupid oversensitivity. Get over it.

    April 5, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  17. SnottyNozeBratt

    It belittles the efforts of successful women when they are reduced to how they look to men.

    The comments here show the mindset that keeps women from earning equally ro competing for high level positions for equal effort and skill level. That keeps kids in poverty when that women becomes as the majority do a single bread winner for the children. It should not be acceptable to act in that manner in a professional environment.

    And to the chap who posits that women need feigned compliments in order to survive, trust me, to avoid stupid conversations and radical labels we tolerate your ignorance. In our minds we label you as a jerk whose mind resides below his belt and fits in a VERY small space.

    April 5, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  18. Ajax

    My Country 'tis "a screwy place". Sweet land of "can't tell a girl she's pretty anymore". Of thee I sing.

    April 5, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  19. Michael

    Please note, only ugly people would be offended by the president's comments. Oh well....

    April 5, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  20. Max

    Only fugly people have an issue with what he said.

    April 5, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  21. Larry in Houston

    @ Dominican M – 4 Obama thx 4 havin my back – you're correct – lol – they still never cease to amaze me !! lol

    April 5, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  22. Anonymous

    Seriously? This is what everyone is worried about? Ever hear of North Korea? Now there's an issue!

    April 5, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  23. Whocares

    Those of you who are saying it's not a big deal and the woman should even be appreciative of the "compliment"...what exactly would you be saying if GW Bush had said that? Because I'm pretty sure I know what you'd say (or scream, rather!).

    April 5, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  24. Name jon

    Indeed inappropriate. It is unacceptable to comment on looks in the work place one way or another. A compliment on physical beauty may be harmless but it also might not be. Who's to decide? and so its banned from my workplace.

    April 5, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  25. Ed

    Oh the irony, democrats create a politically correct nanny state, and it bites them back! Hahaha made my day!

    April 5, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
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