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.

[tweet https://twitter.com/c_v_bennett/status/320028011674103808%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/QuietRay/status/320154752468021248%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/KaceyOKelly/status/319957032222474241%5D

"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.

[tweet https://twitter.com/RobLowe/status/320287126707113984%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/brownsugar7878/status/320116169413640192%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/SayethSimon/status/320035542622416896%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/DaleF3/status/320136077786624000%5D

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. Sam

    What happened to freedom of speech he was complementing her. OMG!!!

    April 5, 2013 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  2. ash

    W never got away with stuff like this.

    April 5, 2013 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  3. Thinks2010

    I seem to recall the President (or it might have been the VP) making a similar comment about some male member of government in a lighthearted manner. I think this probably was just meant as a lighthearted comment made to a friend. However, I also think there is a lot to be said for the argument that as President he should avoid making such comments. People are absolutely correct in pointing out that the looks of professional women are frequently discussed in public and in the media while this same type of conversation very very rarely comes up about professional men. Face it. Women are rated for their looks even when it has nothing of import to do with anything they are doing. This rarely happens to men. Think about the comments sections you read attached to an article about or even by any professional woman and a surprising number of the comments focus on her looks and whether she is hot or not (and that's describing the nature of a lot of the comments in a far more polite light than their actual nature deserves). On the other hand, you almost never see any such comments being posted about a male professional or author and you certainly don't see one's related to his f-kability.

    So I'm not prepared to ding the President for this particular comment, but I do suggest he avoids them in the future when speaking about a professional woman whose looks have nothing to do with her job.

    April 5, 2013 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  4. David

    We cant pay a compliment to a pretty women anymore.

    April 5, 2013 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  5. Steve

    He spoke truth to power.......

    April 5, 2013 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  6. maria

    Is not a joke is very disrespectful ,he is the President of the WH , the chef,he act like a regular guy giving compliments to a lady who happens to be part of th political arena ,you don't hear a woman telling a man somethng like that, my point? very TACKY but what we can expect from someone without class? ? he is the President but is out class ! I like Obama, but this time he was not appropiate ,business is business lets remember that!

    April 5, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  7. Mike

    For all the women who found this comment offensive, it must be pretty lame for you on date night:
    "Gee, Mary, your outfit covers your body to a level that should be found acceptable by over 95% of the population, and the color is neither stuffy, nor overly provocative" or "My you look extra-medium this evening!" or "That dress makes you look intelligent and self-confident, but not in a way that would indicate any physical attraction whatsoever". Enjoy that!

    April 5, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  8. KBNJ

    ...I'm betting the real apology went to Michelle! Honestly, though, who cares, and WHY is this front page news? It MAYBE slightly inappropriate, but I think people are way to uptight.

    April 5, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  9. xyzthegreat

    that is an ok comment, come on. what big deal.

    April 5, 2013 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  10. Detara

    Can't blame him for this, after all his ugly wife Moochelle looks like an infected Hyena.

    April 5, 2013 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  11. jowl

    Wow. Obama has odd taste. Looks like a skinny Hilda Solis.

    April 5, 2013 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  12. Ronna Austin

    So now, it's a crime to have a sense of humor? She really is nice looking and I'm sure all of the other compliments he paid her as well. No apology necessary.

    April 5, 2013 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  13. James

    North Korea is positioning their rockets and provoking other nations, but the talk of the day is that the president called someone pretty. Get a life, people!

    April 5, 2013 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  14. maryanne

    If there a "prettier" Attorney General, we'd better call Crocodile Dundee for his famous gender test on the boys.

    April 5, 2013 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  15. havoc29

    Man, everyone in the media is awful quick to cover for the TROTUS (teleprompter reader of the United States). If a conservative would have said the same thing, the howls of righteous indignation from the press would have been deafening. When are you "journalists" going to quit protecting this guy and call him out for the fraud he really is?

    April 5, 2013 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  16. Riley Shaw

    Get over your selves feminists! If the President of the U.S. can't make a little joke we are all screwed. Thank goodness it was a popular President with women, they would have been burning the last President in effigy.

    April 5, 2013 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  17. Ann

    This is absurd. She's pretty and probably the best looking AG. What's wrong with that? It's a compliment!

    April 5, 2013 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  18. Jeb

    Yeah, women hate being complimented.

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  19. shawn l

    Who cares.

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  20. dee

    Beautiful, Smart and Successful: nothing wrong with someone complimenting on that.

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  21. kata

    I'm just a clown but perhaps someone can help me. North Korea has missles loaded and the top story is what Obama is feeling in his pants?

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  22. weprint

    Best looking AG? Maybe he meant best looking AG in the Democratic party. He needs to checkout Pam Biondi, the AG in Florida.

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  23. AmericansForSensibleGovernment

    Can't wait to see how FOx reports this

    April 5, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  24. Teddyg

    She definitely no Janet Reno.

    April 5, 2013 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  25. Doug

    get over it...if his wife is fine with it, who cares except the ones that are jealous of her...

    April 5, 2013 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52