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. Critical Thinker

    It's politically incorrect, but the hard fact is that good looks account for people's success. Men selected for promotion tend to have an advantage if they are tall, thin, and good looking over men who are short, stocky, and not so handsome. Same holds true for women, always has and always will. The ideal goal is to eliminate or reduce the impact of this type of judging, but most humans are hard-wired in their biases. When's the last time you saw an ugly woman on Fox News? The point is anything the president says or does will be used against him by someone. Maybe they'll stop whining about him playing golf now that they have something else to whine about.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  2. UhOk

    I have no issue with what he said, what I do have an issue with is that if a Republican had said the same thing the left wing liberals we be having a field day whining about it.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  3. Streetheat

    Actually it was a very good call Mr.President, I concur.

    April 5, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  4. fire0bama

    0bama = a sorry president

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

    I find it funny that considering how many horrid things this jerk has done this is what gets him criticism . F me in the b hole seriously. How all those promises of transparency in the government ow wait thats only transparency that Yo Mama approves. And how about that supposed president of peace oh yeah he meant a piece of this country and a piece of that country right. FYI I'm not a damn republican

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  6. Cloud

    I welcome everyone's righteous indignation the next time someone calls Obama or Paul Ryan handsome.

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  7. Gene

    Lighten up people, gawd, he's right.

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  8. Courtney

    Kamala Harris is all those things and she is the president's friend. It is a bit like saying "isn't my brilliant sister beautiful too?" No harm no foul, the man has always behaved as a gentleman so I have no reason to think otherwise.

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  9. diddy

    All white woman are beautiful... blond, brunette, fat or ugly I love white women... shhh. don't tell Hilary...

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  10. Jeb

    She's not offended. So why should anyone else be?

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  11. jerpell

    What do I think?.....I think if he were a Republican he would be asked to resign.....The left wing rag media will spin this into a nice little tale for their kin Liberals!

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  12. WinterBeardOn

    Ban all talking.

    April 5, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  13. greg90814

    Taking PC to a new low... he meant it as a slightly humorous compliment... nothing more... let's move along folks.

    April 5, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  14. Gene

    As He usually is by the way. 🙂

    April 5, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  15. Iohlawyer

    She is very attractive, but the President has a wife and this comment, given his public position, was disrespectful to Michelle. Apologize tonight Mr. President.

    April 5, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  16. Truth

    His actual words were, "I'd hit that."

    April 5, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  17. silverann

    I want to say something but, it is none of my business. If Mr. President felt that he had to say that then That's between him ,and God.

    April 5, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  18. Marie

    WOW!! Give the President some Kudos... It shows that he is still Human!!

    April 5, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  19. bearitstrong

    OMG... "correctness" taken to an absurd extreme. For those who are "troubled" by the POTUS remark I would advise – GET OVER IT!

    April 5, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  20. Bartman

    Oh my heck......what on earth ever happened to our freedom of speech? All this crazy "political correctness" has gone way too far. I am one who is totally disgusted with Obama and his course of action and I don't like him at all. However, I would back his right to say something like he did, whether it was a joke or not. It's so sad that a person cannot express an opinion, make a joke, and etc. without being scrutinized to the max. However, it is perfectly OK for others to use the vulgar f-bomb word all they want in publilc and offend 95% of listeners but a person can't make an innocent joke? Come on, people, get real and get a life. Don't take so much offense at innocent remarks like so many have done in the past 3-4 years when someone says something that might not sit right with one or two people! This is America and our freedom of speech is being trampled on when we have to be politically correct with every cotten-picking thing that comes out of our mouth! I'm sure someone will find offense at my remarks above and all I can say is "grow up"!!!!

    April 5, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  21. Dwijesh

    It's not a big deal...

    April 5, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  22. WinterBeardOn

    she's average looking at best. Obama was being nice.

    April 5, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  23. fauntleroy.murhpy

    I know our President has a propensity for apologizing when it’s not required but, know he’s stepped over the line. His comment was in fun and accurate.

    April 5, 2013 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  24. rvoter

    Just a joke unless a Republican says it.

    April 5, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  25. Donnie the Lion

    Obama gets reamed out when he tries to show some personality.....best policy for any elected official is to just not say anything about anybody. My Presidential memories only go back to Gerald Ford, all of them have been vilified for commentary about various individuals.

    April 5, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 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