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. Flagrante Delicto

    First of all, Pam Bondi, AG for Florida, is TEN TIMES HOTTER than Harris.

    Secondly, had a Republican made this "quip," there would be bon-fires on the front lawn, CodePink would be scaling the fence and NOW would be all over the lame stream media. but, because it's Obama, a wink and a nod mea culpa is all that will transpire. Want to the hypocracy? Just watch the "fervor" over this on PMSNBC tonight. No big deal, they will say.

    April 5, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    Seeing as she's not that attractive, I think it was just meant as a joke. If she was legitimately gorgeous then I'd think it's somewhat inappropriate. Just for the fact that attractive people shouldn't be lauded for their good-looks, they did nothing to get that. Whereas the position she has is something to be lauded, because she obviously worked hard to gain that status.

    April 5, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  3. tevii

    Im no supporter of Obama, but this is ridiculous. are we really that uptight these days???
    Do we have it so good in this country that we have to create drama like this????

    April 5, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  4. mommytwice

    It only matters what SHE thought. They are friends, and if she was insulted, then he needed to apologize to HER, not the whole country. jeez.

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  5. Bill

    serious? Don't we have more important issues at hand to talk about? Like our country is going down the toilet ..taken over by these bankers?

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  6. G D

    Being call handsome or good looking is a compliment. Being called an ugly dog is an insult. Hurling compliments is better than hurling insults. Pretty simple. What is the fascination with even the simplest of comments by a politico???

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  7. Really

    If the previous administration would have made this comment the media would have insisted he resign.

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  8. jay_hawk

    In the private business world men were fired for less. Fire this dumb president. I guess just because he is president and black he can say and get away with any thing. Where is the 1st lady or is she used to this action.

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  9. Delmar H. Knudson

    I have a quota. I try to catch six people each day who make a non P.C. remark. We are the P.C. Police.

    April 5, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  10. Michael

    Get a grip, FOLKS. It was a compliment and, from what I have seen, she IS the best looking AG in the country.

    April 5, 2013 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  11. Rynomite

    If he was going to apologize to anyone, it should have been to the other attorney general's who he slighted!

    April 5, 2013 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  12. cincinnatidavid

    This issue is not important in comparison to rumors of Obama caving in on Social Security and Medicare benefits.

    April 5, 2013 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  13. Glenn

    blah blah blah. Women want it both ways when their business attire includes short skirts, open blouses, high heel shoes and the hair is more appropriate for a dinner party than a Boardroom. Dressing like this obviously indicates they clearly want to be noticed rather than wearing conservative business-wear and yet they get all bent out of shape when somebody notices or makes a tasteful comment. Talk about double standards! What a load of hooey!!

    April 5, 2013 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  14. maria

    To Dave Bergquest: yes Korea is threatening an attack on us ,employement is going down the toilette,and the President is busy giving complements to the Attorney General about her beauty? gime a break he should be specific about our national security and other importants vews in America...he did it wrong ,seems to me our President is not worry or care a iota about our Country! I am not a Republican ,I don't watch FOX TV but this is enough stop playing games this is serious ,to me was really TACKY! it was not the right time to give her the compliments about her beauty c'mon !

    April 5, 2013 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  15. Pops 13

    It's better than saying that she is the ugliest AG in the country. People upset about anything, even a compliment. That's what the President did, pay the lady a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  16. CG

    Who cares? it's was more than like said in jest and it doesn't make him anything. He's POTUS and he can't have a sense of humor?

    April 5, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  17. Steve

    President Obama is scrutinized to death over every letter that comes out of his mouth. The president is human and when he is being human people just want to stop the daylights out of him for it. So he made a respectful comment about this lady and her looks along with complimenting her abilities and accomplishments. Is that really such a terrible thing? I think the only person that has a right to judge that is his wife. Everybody else should just pass it off as the president showing us his human side and leave it at that.

    April 5, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  18. mike

    hmm...she really is good looking.

    April 5, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  19. The Thinker1958

    so those women in the Miss Universe contest should suit anybody that calls them beautiful?

    April 5, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  20. ImIrish

    I don't like Obama in any way, shape or form, but his comments were not offensive. People are getting too darned politically correct. I'm a woman; if someone complimented me on my looks, so what?! As long as they thought I was good at my job, why be so easily offended?!

    April 5, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  21. Matt

    I hate when things like this get blown out of proportion. To be honest she is definitely the best looking AG, and even though I'm not a fan of the President I don't think it's inappropriate to give someone a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  22. Ed C

    Has he not seen Florida's Attorney General ?

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  23. jorge

    I am usually critical of this president because I don't agree with his policies but he shouldn't be sorry about calling a lady nice looking. Most people would be happy having the president of the US complementing them.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  24. jewbacca

    This is ridiculous. Women spend so much time and $$ on cosmetics, exercise, clothing, jewelry, surgery so they can LOOK ATTRACTIVE TO OTHER PEOPLE!!!! But when a man makes a harmless remark that a woman looks attractive it's "offensive"?! What a bunch of BS. Hey women, if you don't want us to say you're attractive, then eat Ben and Jerry's all day and stop going to the gym.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  25. Gurgyl

    It is a compliment not complaint. What is big deal. Lot of people say it. Nothing wrong at all. I bet she gets elated when such a wonderful president complimented. I commend.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
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