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. Marty

    We have to call the presidents judgement into question when he states an ugly woman is good-looking.

    April 5, 2013 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  2. JonathanL

    If he was being sarcastic I can see how she would be offended. But who else should care? His wife? I guess if you are president you will offend someone no matter what you say. Meanwhile these days a terrorist country with a psychotic leader is sabre rattling with nuclear warheads and people are yawning. Flakey.

    April 5, 2013 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  3. divorced dad

    It is impossible to say good morning these days without offending someone. Really think we need to lighten up and stop taking ourselves so seriously.

    April 5, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  4. Bethany Hunter

    I took President Obama's comment as a compliment. Not everyday the President of the United States of America calls you good looking. The statement was harmless. There is nothing wrong with being brainy and easy on the eyes at the same time.

    April 5, 2013 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  5. Marv

    He wasn't lying.....she is the best looking AG lol

    April 5, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  6. Tina1649

    Give me a break. This reminds me of a former male work colleague who complimented a woman's sweater and the woman immediately made a harassment claim to the personnel office. What crap that people cannot accept a simple compliment or positive comiment! I thought Kamala should feel flattered, regardless of her political future agenda.

    April 5, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  7. citadel4u

    Being smart and good looking does count.

    April 5, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  8. Kelly51

    She's his friend. Everyone he hires is his friend. It's not what you know, but who you know. On topic? He paid his friend a compliment. Nothing wrong with that.

    April 5, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |

    He's a Democrat! Remember, only Republicans should be attacked.

    April 5, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  10. Paul

    It must be a slow news day. This story is just a ridiculous, overblown waste of time.

    April 5, 2013 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  11. Selmers

    Awww! Whats the matter? Getting an earful from the same idiots who voted you in?

    April 5, 2013 06:04 pm at 6:04 pm |
  12. Jansen

    Imagine what would happen is anyone in the USA, like say a racist, commented on the appearance of the President, about how he is black. Surely they would shut down the comment threads wouldn't they?

    April 5, 2013 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  13. Barb Bittner

    The problem is the President shouldn't be joking about these issues. It breaks down the office of the President of the United States. I haven't heard him EVER say that Eric Holder was the best looking Attorney General. That is the difference.

    April 5, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  14. pendes

    We are becoming way too sensitive when a complement creates so many negative remarks. We can call someone smart, ambitious, dedicated ... but oh no don't say "attractive"! So ridiculous.

    April 5, 2013 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  15. rich

    Only the ones who find fault with EVERYTHING the President says or does will find this offensive. I am also the males that do talk much worse about women too

    April 5, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  16. mike

    Remark was harmless but he either should have known better or knew in advance it would raise eyebrows and said it anyway which is fine by me.

    April 5, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  17. Deerrrrpppp

    It's getting pretty pathetic when any comment addressing the reality of peoples' looks is interpreted as some kind of "offensive" act, when the statement was a compliment.

    The fact that all these people falsely pretending to be offended managed to coerce an apology just ices the cake.

    April 5, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  18. leftywriteagain

    Another reason to hate! The election is over. He won.

    April 5, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  19. Kinda true

    The comments about reaction being different it was a white male Republican are kinda true. From Obama it's a funny joke. From Boehner, McConnell, or Limbaugh it would be pretty creepy with a high yuck factor.

    April 5, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  20. nick

    People are way too sensitive when they are offended by a comment said to someone else who wasn't offended.

    April 5, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  21. Bill

    It's no big deal really. I can't stand Obama, but this is a non issue.

    April 5, 2013 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
  22. PaulieJ

    Such a non-issue.
    The biggest thing offending me lately is how others are so easily (supposedly) offended.

    April 5, 2013 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  23. Abdu

    This is why there is Hijab in Islam. That can not happen for a muslim woman. A muslim woman is judge by her performance not by how she looks – The western fails to understand this point

    April 5, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  24. cp

    Just why did the Republicans nominate a beautiful woman to run for VP? Of course, looks matter and we would be lying if we did not think that Sarah Palin had Republican men on her side very quickly. How about taking a step back and realizing that this was just another stupid issue. How about the people who complimented Ann Romney? She is a beautiful woman and I am sure that MItt thought so, too.

    April 5, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  25. Jansen

    Those objecting are examples of hypocrisy at it's loudest. Where are they when people make vile hateful racist comments of a personal nature against the President AND against the FIrst Lady? They do not object then. In fact, they probably are doing some of the ugly name calling.

    April 5, 2013 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
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