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. Paris

    As a woman, I find that it was only a compliment. Too many stupid sensitive people just trying to spark more controversy. Get over it.

    April 5, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  2. David

    Republicans who are against women's rights will pretend to be outraged.

    April 5, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  3. Bryan

    The double standard is interesting when you think about it.

    When the head of a party championing equal rights for women, makes a slightly inappropriate, and maybe a bit funny, comment people generally give him a free pass (Obama).

    When a member of the party trying to place women back in a subservient role and legislate what they can and cannot do with their bodies based on their religious beliefs makes the same comment it is seen as aggressive.

    Perhaps this is not a double standard at all – maybe it makes perfect sense.

    April 5, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  4. Logan

    Be logical.......If you meet a friend, you see it as jokeful to respond by saying, your cute, or your awesome. Don't be stupid and follow the nonsense some people will due for money purposes. don't be absurd. This is only a political, with backings, to make obama look bad. Non-sense.

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

    The only people complaining are women that didn't get complimented by the president. You go, gal! You are Perrrtyyy!!!!

    April 5, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  6. icowrich

    It's a bit silly. Many people comment on Obama's looks and we talked endlessly about what a dreamboat Scott Brown is. Why wasn't there any controversy over that?

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

    lol. Now the politically correct police are even going after democrats.

    April 5, 2013 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  8. katie

    I'm sure she was flattered and thought it was funny at the same time. Anyone who takes offense to that is being ridiculous.

    April 5, 2013 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  9. Elmer Hemingway

    Much ado about nothing. I agree with an earlier post stating that only very insecure people would be offended.

    April 5, 2013 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  10. kg

    It was probably the most honest statement he's made in the past 10 years.

    April 5, 2013 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  11. Prezence

    This is beyond ridiculous. Maybe we should focus on bigger issues than a guy calling a woman pretty? First Musburger now Obama. Get over yourselves stop this nonsense.

    April 5, 2013 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  12. Maxie VonSydow

    Problem is, she IS attractive. Imagine what would have happened if she wasn't!

    April 5, 2013 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  13. Brian

    Wow, A man finds a woman attractive. This has been happening for several million years. Now that we have that covered, shall we focus on the potential nuclear war?

    April 5, 2013 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  14. Steven

    There are so many things to object to when it comes to Obama – this is nothing. Tempest in a teapot...how about holding him accountable for being devoid of leadership skills? Wait..he didn't have them to begin with and we still elected him...twice. Nevermind.

    April 5, 2013 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  15. amazed

    a compliment/joke is getting attention? seriously? Is there any real news going on in the world? i thought this was CNN not a tabloid...

    April 5, 2013 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  16. Vijesh

    It is a quite a concern that we are discussing such an irrelevant topic as the main story in CNN... It was a harmless pass by remark.. This is the best example of media blowing things out of proportion. Isnt there any other relevant news happening in this world?

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

    Obama asks for votes from the PC gang. It is up to them to decide his guilt (I hope they do not have a double standard).
    I have given-up on handing out honest compliments. People seem to prefer to hear negative comments about others. We live in contentious times.

    April 5, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    How dare Obama call a woman pretty? What a jerk.

    Oh wait...

    April 5, 2013 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
  19. baj99

    doesn't the President know that you can't joke about anything anymore?

    April 5, 2013 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
  20. Matt

    Lighten up people!

    April 5, 2013 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
  21. John

    For Heaven's sake, get over it!!!!! It was a compliment and only a compliment, quit making something more out of it that it was intended to be!

    April 5, 2013 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  22. Zack

    She's using this for publicity. As a California, I won't vote for her in the future because her PR people took advantage of a great President to put her on the map.

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  23. schoolsub

    As a conservative, I have no problem with such a remark. It was complimentary. As a conservative I do have a problem with Obumstead saying it because he and his liberal "feel good" cronies always make such an issue of political correctness. It is high time to trash all of this PC crap.

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  24. Raine

    It's ok because the current president said it. God forbid if Bush had said it.

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  25. bill Fitzgerald

    being Judgmental is a joke?

    April 5, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
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