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. Danno

    Pam Bondi is much better looking....

    April 5, 2013 06:16 pm at 6:16 pm |
  2. Arthur

    Disrespectful?? How can a compliment be disrespectful?? That's just a stupid, ssissi comment. Nonsense.
    If it fits the shoes of many women, it's their problem. Obama never said that her job performance or salary or whatever is tied to her appearance so stop the stupidity and grow up.

    April 5, 2013 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  3. jan

    Lighten up folks! I would've said the same thing along with how well-spoken she is. A nice counterpoint in a sea of suits.

    April 5, 2013 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  4. RC

    I wonder if he has a book of good looking AGs'

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

    Jesse... tongue and cheek? Before you criticize other's sense of humor, you might want to learn your cliches. It's tongue-in-cheek.

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

    Five me a freeking break. You pc nut jobs will and do find fault with anthing and everything. Hey she is good looking.. deal with it. You whackos should turn your efforts to something of import...hey how about that jerk from sc who is the republican candidate?

    April 5, 2013 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  7. Ron b

    Shut up already!! It is a compliment! She is good looking. Why so much crap because she is a woman? A lot of ppl in this country are way too uptight!

    April 5, 2013 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  8. Sue

    If the AG is not upset, why the heck should anybody else be?

    April 5, 2013 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  9. Philip Edwards

    The haters are looking for a stained blue dress.

    April 5, 2013 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  10. Jim

    The comment was inappropriate for a few reasons. One, because the President is married. Married men don't get to comment on how attractive women are, unless the woman is their wife or mother. Two, because being attractive is a trivial accomplishment compared with being the Attorney General of the state of California. Including the two together, might be considered as ironic juxtaposition, but, generally not. Last, because he is the President. If he was your old uncle who flirts with all the waitresses down at the casino and says that, its quaint. If its the President of the United States, we expect a higher level of professionalism. I don't get to go into my job and comment on who my most attractive female co-workers are, and neither does he.

    April 5, 2013 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  11. Rod

    Unreal, he spoke of her brains, toughness and her being better looking than her counterparts, what part was inappropriate? Anybody with eyes can see he told the truth, if someone should be upset, it's her counterparts. This President can't pass wind without criticism. Why doesn't the press cover something like why African American wealth is down over 50%. instead of crap like this.

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

    I've no use for the man, personally or professionally. That aside, his comment should have been taken as the compliment it was intended to be.

    April 5, 2013 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  13. Am

    @Jesse – yes it was a joke, but that doesn't mean jokes are never inappropriate.

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

    I've never seen a good-looking liberal politician. Not to say they don't exist, but they are certainly rare.
    Which may turn out to be a 'good thing' as men will always seek to mate with the best looking gals, leaving the shriveled-up whiny prunes to spinsterhood
    (how many oxes did that just gore? How many PC rules broken?)

    April 5, 2013 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  15. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    @ Lynda/Minnesota
    Hi there! Incredible bs this is yes?!
    How about those North Koreans?
    I wish someone would let me know if I should bother with the mortgage this month...
    I think that's more important than this tripe.
    Safe weekend to you my friend.

    April 5, 2013 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  16. Carol

    Well folks, I can take a joke, I am an ardent Obama supporter, and , in addition to being very bright and accomplished PhD, I am a very attractive woman. I enjoy being recognized for the myriad parts of myself... I DO think, however, that his comment was uncalled for. I don't see it as insulting, but I do agree that in this situation it took away from the serious and very appropriate comments he was making regarding her professionalism & her suitability for the job.

    April 5, 2013 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  17. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©™

    The President's compliment was entirely innocent and light.
    Physical attractiveness is not everything in life, but for those blessed with it, it's not a reason to be ashamed.

    April 5, 2013 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  18. IMeanReally

    C'MON!! This is no big deal. I mean, really? We waste time complaining over someone finding another good looking? And this is bad? Move on. Nothing to see here. My only complaint would be that if it had been a Republican making the comment we'd all be bombarded with it on the media from Good Morning America to Late night with David Letterman. For at least a week. No biggie people.

    April 5, 2013 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  19. Maynard

    Notice how the women who got offended in the tweets shown above are fugly hahha

    April 5, 2013 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  20. pkwilson

    I am not an Obama fan but that was not offensive. The ones to make that call would Kamala and Michele.

    April 5, 2013 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  21. John G.

    This is such a crock. Please, if this offends you, you need therapy.

    April 5, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  22. joe

    why are they showing that gutless terd Newsom? watch this Adam Corrla podcast when Newsom was a guest. The guy has no spine at all.

    April 5, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  23. ally buster

    This is newsworthy-?

    April 5, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  24. max3333444555

    a big who cares. it shouldn't be a story. probably poor judgment on his part but nobody is perfect

    April 5, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  25. John


    Imagine a republican saying something like that. They would be forced to resign by the leftist media."

    Nah, that only happens when they are AWOL from their job as governor and it turns out they hopped on a plane to Argentina at taxpayer expense, to hop in the sack with their mistress.

    April 5, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
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