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. James

    He's a democrat what do you expect.

    April 5, 2013 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  2. Mike D49

    It was a dumb thing to do only because he should know how petty and downright horrible people are today.

    April 5, 2013 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  3. NSL

    If would have been okay to say it if it was true, but PA's Kathleen Kane is most definitely the best looking state AG in the US.

    April 5, 2013 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  4. CM

    Much ado about nothing. Get over yourselves.

    April 5, 2013 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  5. Mike

    Ugh... this is so silly. The teabillies are kicking up a fuss about his every action like they always do. No need to apologize unless she personally told him she was offended.

    April 5, 2013 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  6. Name Barbara

    We have so many things to worry about-I mean, how important is Mr. Obama's comment to you? I kind of think threats from No. Korea, getting treated with contaminated medicine, and being able to make your mortgage payment is just a bit more important.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  7. socalgal

    Send Kamala to DC to talk it over...keep her...then remove all the guns from the secret service and task them with protecting them both. Sandbox administration...you get what you get.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  8. arothmanmusic

    The only thing "offensive" about the president's remark is that it's being treated as headline news.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  9. Jessi

    Her looks were just a side note after Obama said that she was brilliant, dedicated and tough. Clearly this was meant as a statement of admiration and respect. Now can we calm down?

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  10. jsmtih

    The fact that one should apologize for a comment like this is a testament to how f'd our society has become. It's as if it's no longer acceptable to be a normal human being. I hope this article is an indication of the decline of being pc rather than omen of what we should expect in the future.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  11. Emintey

    it was an inappropriate remark in the workplace and political arena. The president has apologized and I think recognizes how innapropriate it was. It's a reminder in these changing times of how we must all relate to one another in a professional capacity.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  12. rvoter

    If Bainer said that about a woman the left would eat it up. So stop trying to defended him lefty's.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  13. arothmanmusic

    The only thing 'offensive' about the President's remark is that it's being treated as headline news by the media.

    April 5, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    Get over it America.

    April 5, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  15. Tim Morse

    Best looking Attorney General? That's gotta be Pam Bondi.

    April 5, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  16. Romney is Still NOT My Hero


    Shouldn't he be apologizing to all the other AGs?
    No, all the other AGs should apologize to us for being ugly.

    April 5, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  17. apey_lady

    Definitely better looking than that ape woman wife 😉

    April 5, 2013 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  18. Just a thought

    I would say he is right, she is attractive. And to the critics I say Relax Francis

    April 5, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  19. well

    It’s Official: A Democratic President Proposes to Cut Social Security
    by Digby, Common Dreams, April 5, 2013

    Mark this day. For the first time in history, a Democratic president has officially proposed to cut the Democratic Party’s signature New Deal program, Social Security:

    April 5, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  20. jamessavik

    I love the way these guys fall all over themselves trying to be politically correct.

    Take it for what it is: a compliment.

    April 5, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  21. Epictetus

    In my opinion, it's no different than referring to Obama as, "..the first Black President." As a Blackman I don't have a problem with that because they are stating something about him, that is obvious and not meant in a derogatory way. However, I could easily say don't label him as being Black, rather, label him simply as being a President of the United States. But that would be silly because being Black is what makes him a unique President. All the same, compared to many of the other AG's in the country, Harris is obviously pretty darn HOT. So he stated the obvious.

    I'm sure some of the "less than attractive" people were offended because it's true that the more attractive you are the more opportunities you'll be given. Reality check, being attractive is just like a gift, some people have it and will benefit from it, while others don’t and won’t; just like sports, not everyone on the team can be a quarterback or pitcher. All the same, attractive people also have to face the stereotype that if you're attractive..you can't be smart. So in my opinion, it's simply a matter of people taking Obama’s statement based on the shoes they're wearing.

    That said, I had an attorney and said something like, "The picture you use on your advertising isn't very flattering, you're much hotter than that." And she didn't like it because she wanted to define herself as a smart attorney instead of an attractive one. So I never said it again and kept working in a professional manner. On the other hand, someone has said the same thing about one of my pictures and I said Thank You, changed my picture and kept trucking along. All in all, if Harris wasn't offended, then everyone else should keep their heads in the ground and shut the hell up.

    April 5, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  22. really

    What does ol' horse face (Michelle) think of all this?

    April 5, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  23. Uncle Howie

    No wonder Kim Jong Un thinks he can take us out. We have become the most hypersensitive bunch of politically correct jags on the planet. Good Lord!!

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  24. N

    Called to apologize for the distraction, not for the comment? Why bother if the apology isn't really an apology.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  25. Richard Wad

    Supporters think its "just a joke"?
    Any republican caught saying this would have ended his or her career. Just look at "binders full of women"

    Could someone ask Obama to apologize to Muslims and North Korea and Iran again while he is at it, maybe it would do more good than saying sorry for this.

    April 5, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
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