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. Maria Rivera-Carvalho

    Much ado about nothing. People need to lighten up! It's not like he gave a massage to Angela Merkel or anything like that.

    April 5, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  2. California Conservative

    She's nothing more than a far left San Francisco liberal.

    I mean that in the most derogatory way.

    April 5, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  3. cynic44

    For all you sycophants that think it's just swell that he paid her such high praise in such a jocular way: Replay it in your head using the voice of G W Bush and how does it sound? Yeah, thought so.

    April 5, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  4. vgs1895

    I'm not an Obama fan, but this is just plain stupid. Why not talk about things that matter–not whether he called someone 'good looking.' If he'd said it to a guy would people come unglued? Probably. Those people need a life.

    April 5, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  5. mrhapiguy

    First Rutgers and now this. I mourn the death of our inner cave-men!

    April 5, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  6. truth hurts but reality bites

    For God's sake people! This idiot is supposed to be the President of the United States! This comment is SO inappropriate on so many levels it is ridiculous.

    1. Unprofessional in any professional, business or political context.
    2. Demeaning to her accomplishments, she was NOT there as a beauty queen.
    3. Demeaning to the Ofice of President of the United States.
    4. Demeaning to his wife, who now thinks Barack is checking out how hot she and other AGs are.

    So I guess it will be OK when and if Hillary Clinton runs for office, the Republicans can call her old, fat and ugly? Free pass right liberals and Democrats??

    April 5, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  7. mike

    This isnt news

    April 5, 2013 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  8. Phister

    POTUS goes down for blurting out a heterophobe slur.

    April 5, 2013 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  9. AL

    A joke that if a republican would have said he would have been fired and scolded by now

    April 5, 2013 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  10. Jjb1313

    Liberals for you...

    April 5, 2013 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  11. Silverado

    Is she not better looking than Alberto Gonzales? That has never been disputed. So, what's wrong?

    April 5, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  12. Syndrome Zed

    Well when you have a bunch of 60-ish ugly white guys and Janet Reno to compare against, she kind of wins by default whether Obama says it out loud or not. 🙂

    April 5, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  13. Joshua

    I think Kathleen Kane from PA might have an objection. She is by far the better looker.

    April 5, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  14. Gary

    Omg, at least our President is Hetero. I mean, come on, is that inappropriate too? Give me a break, Its not like he mistook her for a WMD or someting.

    April 5, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  15. Greenspam

    Man, anyone who thinks a man cannot call another woman beautiful can go to hell.. Seriously... and when did GOP become friends with PC police?

    April 5, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  16. Sunshine100

    LITMUS TEST: Consider the public's response if a Republican office holder, or even President Bush, made that same comment. He'd be verbally tarred & feathered and run out on a pole. Yes, Obama's comment was seriously inappropriate and I hope Michelle can get him to understand why it is so.

    April 5, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  17. Ed

    Really? I mean really?. This actually made the news? You literally can't say anything in the United States of America without some overly sensitive group people coming for your throat smh

    April 5, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  18. franky

    Well, I didn't ask you fat cows your opinions, there is that better.

    April 5, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  19. Getoverit

    Very insecure people are the only one’s that would take offense to that harmless remark.
    Unless a Republican said it.

    April 5, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  20. A Republican

    I can't believe how thin skinned people are to pounce on this comment. I for one, don't find this offensive. People must be real insecure in their skin to think he meant anything other than a compliment. Get real people and look at bigger issues!

    Florida M.

    April 5, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  21. potvin99

    It's inappropriate for a married man to be making comments like this. He must be having marital trouble with Bigfoot.

    April 5, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  22. Name

    Better to remain silent and have people think your stupid then to say something and remove all doubt

    April 5, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  23. ThroesSpin

    In response Obama just hired a pair of etiquette consultants.

    They complement each other nicely.

    April 5, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  24. Phyl

    He is a man....that's all they think about...pretty women...:)

    April 5, 2013 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  25. Greenspam

    All I can say is Republicans are the worst looking people... there... you like that compliment?

    April 5, 2013 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
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