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. Dave

    Welcome to the United States of Double Standards. Females may compliment men or ridicule men based on the men's looks, but men may never say anything about a female's looks. In fact, men are required to date any female, no matter how fat or ugly she is. At the same time, females may mock or insult men for being short, skinny, or whatever other superficial standard the females want to apply.

    April 5, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  2. Fiona

    Female here: it's a harmless compliment. If he'd said a man was the best looking AG, no one would have blinked. Harris is a tough woman. Water off a duck's back.

    Beside, Harris puts a lot of effort into her looks. If you don't want to be seen that way, don't play it up. And that holds for both men and women.

    April 5, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  3. Anyone But President O

    If anyone else, particularly a white male Republican, had made the same remarks, the headline of this article would not be a series of questions.

    April 5, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  4. brian

    Here's an idea. Let's see what the woman says and if she was offended. The comment was too/about her. If she isn't offended then it isn't anyone else's concern. If she is then he can apologize to her directly.

    April 5, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  5. Rationalintn

    If she is the best looking AG in the nation, that is not a very high bar, and doesn't say much for the other 49.

    April 5, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  6. Tom Daniels

    How come no one is complaining about the broad dis to attorneys general in general. He said she was "by far" the best looking. That leaves every other attorney general wondering what Obama thinks of them. Holder must be pretty hurt today.

    April 5, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  7. Ron L

    Here is the comment:
    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Obama said, according to the report.

    First pointing out how effective she is at her occupation followed by a "light hearted" compliment. Why anyone would be offended at this is beyond me. This is a perfect example of what is wrong with having everyone and I mean everyone voicing their opinion on the web and "Thinking" they are making a profound observation...many people need to "GET OVER THEMSELVES!!"

    April 5, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  8. Ferret out the BS

    I would think that if she was offended by it she would either tell him to not do that again or take it to a higher level...Michelle!

    April 5, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  9. Jay

    He's not a celebrity, he's the president. His comment showed poor judgment. To make the comment in a mixed crowd also showed poor taste. Not funny. Not appropriate. Sad. No excuse Mr. President.

    April 5, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  10. scott

    I'm sure if George W Bush would have made a remark like this the media would understand that he was just being a nice guy and that it was a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  11. larry

    It's amazing how your political party can now affect how you view a comment that is clearly chauvinistic by any standards. Just because the recipient accepts it as a compliment doesn't mean it is one considering that how she accepts it affects her political future in her party. She had no choice... almost like what you'd experience in a hostile work environment.

    April 5, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  12. la la 3023

    He needs glasses.

    April 5, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  13. jc

    people need to get a life. if that bothers anyone they are nuts!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  14. Warren


    I'll bet she did...

    April 5, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  15. Sean

    Obama was dead wrong. That can't possibly be the best looking attorney general.

    April 5, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  16. Unbelievable

    The fact that this is even an issue gives me little faith in the american people as a whole... He paid her a compliment in a fleeting remark. If that is too much for you, go see a therapist.

    April 5, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  17. Name lynn

    The president is giving 5% of his pay an also obama want the white house leaders hurt the poor people. Thats count for something people.

    April 5, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  18. Anthony

    Our society is in trouble if a man cannot compliment a woman's look AFTER saying she is brilliant and dedicated and tough.

    April 5, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  19. Ed

    I didn't think it was a big deal. However, the far right and far left would go crazy based on what party was making the statement. If it's Obama, the left dont care and the right hates it. If it's Bush, the right don't care and the left hates it. Sad it has to be that way.

    April 5, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  20. vj

    Everyone knows that Women love compliments, no harm, no foul

    April 5, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  21. Cinta

    She is pretty and bright. He gave her a compliment and meant it with sincerity. Haters out there always have something negative and mean to say....geez. It's a compliment!

    April 5, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  22. Liz

    The only issue with the compliment is that it discounts another beautiful AG, Pam Bondi of Florida!

    April 5, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  23. ReaganLives4Ever

    He is a democrat – he could have had a child with her out of wedlock, been seen smoking pot, beat her, been arrested....and still won his primary

    April 5, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  24. HD

    Give the guy a break .. It was a harmless comment ..

    April 5, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  25. Give-It-Up

    Considering what he has to look at when he gets back to the White House, I guess just about any woman would look better than...Mrs. For The First Time In My Adult I Am Proud Of My Country.

    By the way, did you folks see where MO said...."Believe me, as a busy, single mother" on the same day her husband is hitting on this AG?

    April 5, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
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