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. Little Feet

    I'm noticing a pattern here: Obama sides with Professor Gates, who is black, when all Gates had to do was show his ID and the problem was solved; Obama backs Attorney General Holder, who is black, when Holder said about the Black Panther voter intimidation issue that "When you compare what people endured in the South in the ’60s to try to get the right to vote for African Americans, to compare what people subjected to that with what happened in Philadelphia… I think does a great disservice to people who put their lives on the line for my people." (My people? Aren't your people supposed to be Americans....not just black Americans?); when Kevin Ware, who is black, broke his leg during the NCAA tournament he got a call from Michelle Obama (funny, I didn't here of either Michelle or Barack calling Sidney Crosby, who is white, when he took a puck to his face that broke his jaw and caused him to lose several teeth last week in an NHL hockey game); and now this: saying that Kamala Harris, who is half black, is "by far" the best looking attorney general. I'm sure there's been some fairly pretty white attorney generals....Kathleen Kane, Pam Bondi (all WAY hotter than Harris).

    Once again, the true face of racism has reared it's head and it's not white on black racism...it's black on white....and it's somehow okay, isn't it?

    April 5, 2013 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  2. joe

    Just stupid attempt to take the focus away from the dreadful jobs market! Worst since Jimmy Carter.

    April 5, 2013 07:08 pm at 7:08 pm |
  3. .Hugh Jorgan

    What a lame complaint about a compliment, God must love stupid people, he made so many of them.

    I guess it's a persons right to be stupid, but too many Republicans are abusing the priviledge.

    April 5, 2013 07:08 pm at 7:08 pm |
  4. Robert McCabe

    Obama should resign right now for the good of the country.

    April 5, 2013 07:08 pm at 7:08 pm |
  5. JanetReno

    It's ok obama, I don't care.

    April 5, 2013 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  6. Frank Stoddard

    Some folks are pretty and some are more handsome. No big deal!!

    April 5, 2013 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  7. Patricia Taylor

    You can't pay a compliment to a woman?

    April 5, 2013 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  8. Sam

    People really need to learn to chill. He meant nothing other than that she was good looking. If they would rather have him call all women ugly, then okay. It is a stupid issue that really shouldn't even be one. Fell bad for Obama on this one.

    April 5, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  9. Meki60

    its okay coming from Obama, he is gay

    April 5, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  10. Ron Jeremy's stunt double

    He apologized for the distractions his comment caused, not for the comment itself. Thats not an apology. Once again, this guy knows nothing about leadership or responsibility.

    April 5, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  11. Shirl

    American news is utter rubbish! More concerned about inconsequential crap like this than true news.

    April 5, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  12. Don

    I wouldn't have expected anything less from Obama, He's an arrogant leader as it it.

    April 5, 2013 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |
  13. Paul Grigsby

    Maybe she is the best looking AG.

    April 5, 2013 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |
  14. john

    She is quite yummy mmmm..

    April 5, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  15. Michelle

    We have some of the STUPIDEST people on the planet. First, even Stevie Wonder can see he adores his wife. Second, they are secure enough in their love for him to make a compliment to a friend – yes they have been friends a long time. Third, Obama, Michelle, and Michelle's mother are laughing their *&# off at the stupidity they continusly are faced with. If there has EVER been a pattern of inproper behavior, I could see the point, but this is just another colossal waste of time – except for the birthers and other idiots still in search of something. To all of thoe folks, I'd just say – imagine all we could have achieved if only we were focused on real issues in this country.

    April 5, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  16. Feminist says, oh, come on!

    Someday we'll have a woman president complimenting an attractive male AG. Yay!

    April 5, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  17. apstar

    The degree that PC (political correctness) is taken seriously these days borders on the absurd. It's as if lawyers are just itching to file a lawsuit anytime anyone even hints such actions. You may as well lock up all the comedians that prey on the gaffs and foibles of any member - past, present or future - of the human race, not to mention animals and plants, or heaven-forbid, poke fun at garden gnomes, and you'll be arrested or served in a heartbeat.

    April 5, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  18. John

    Why is this an issue? This something blown up to fill air time until something else happens. Pathetic that the press would write something like this. Sad really...

    April 5, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  19. Andy

    I am a republican and not Obamas biggest fan by far but this is ridiculous.

    April 5, 2013 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  20. Tony

    This is ridicules, what are we coming to when we cannot even compliment someone. And I'm not even close to being an Obama fan.

    April 5, 2013 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  21. Brian Murphy

    We must all have better things to do with our time than to take offense at a simple compliment. If we cannot comment on beauty for its own value that neither enhances nor diminishes a persons accomplishments than we have become a very sad and sorry place. Please banish the PC Police now!

    As an aside, I am not a Democrat, Liberal or Obama acolyte. I am independent and also quite good looking if I might say so without offending anyone or diminishing my stature as a commentator or a man.

    April 5, 2013 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  22. mx

    The test is, has he ever said that about a man?

    April 5, 2013 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  23. mother nature

    The politically correct police are at it again ... 😉
    i found his comment to be quite humorous as well as honest – not like some other male politicians gaffes

    April 5, 2013 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  24. dbdy

    Normally I don't support the president but the comment he made was just that... a comment. I don't understand how all those people are going over board on this? You people really, really need to find something insightful to do besides hang onto every word the President speaks....GET OVER IT !!!

    April 5, 2013 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  25. mochica

    Only in the United States would anyone find a compliment an insult. We are too sensitive to language. Relax and be happy. Enjoy life.

    April 5, 2013 07:17 pm at 7:17 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