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. clive rayman

    Once again political correctness gone amok by those who say he was wrong. Jeez people chillout and accept nice compliments! I am sure the lady was not offended.

    April 5, 2013 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  2. Kingfish

    Telling the truth about a pretty girl and giving her compliments isn't an issue for sane people. Reporters with nothing to do in their lives but to try and cause trouble is why you have bad names and should be fired. This is ridiculous! Don't we have enough real issues worldwide today? This never was and never will be an issue. Those who made it one should stick it right back where it was so you don't get homesick but stay out of our world.

    April 5, 2013 07:39 pm at 7:39 pm |
  3. Arbour

    No woman on earth will be offended to be called most beautiful of her profession. He should apologize to all the other female AG's for not regarding them as most beautiful.

    April 5, 2013 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  4. rt77

    If you are the type woman that is offended by that comment, then you will never get far, much less be in a position of leadership in this world. If you are so insecure, go back home and watch the world on tv'

    April 5, 2013 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  5. Bob

    Who cares? As much of a disgrace as this president it, this is just not worth getting upset over. Of course it is because of the stupidity of his party that we have to deal with this kind of PC crap.

    April 5, 2013 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  6. steve

    It's getting bad when you can't compliment someone. She is good looking, I'll say it too. Kamala Harris you're "by far the best looking attorney general." Lets see if that makes headlines... Lighten up, Michelle Obama is also the best looking First Lady.

    April 5, 2013 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  7. Cyprustree

    Enough with the politically correct crap. I am a professional woman, hard-working, dedicated and talented. I am confident in my abilities and if someone compliments my appearance, ti does not for one minute devalue my other attributes. It's a shame that the PC police are out in force and seem to hold sway over everybody, even Obama.

    April 5, 2013 07:42 pm at 7:42 pm |
  8. Suze

    There is nothing wrong with him complimenting her in that fashion. PC run amok!!

    April 5, 2013 07:42 pm at 7:42 pm |
  9. Runymede

    Cripes !!......ain't some people so sensitive !!

    April 5, 2013 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  10. David

    I think it was a compliment to a smart lady.

    April 5, 2013 07:44 pm at 7:44 pm |
  11. Bill inVA

    Here we go giving BHO a pass. If it had been a Republican, everyone (well woman) from Pelosi to Boxer and the Hollywood types would have been out for blood. I agree that it is pretty harmless and not even sure why it is news but the double standard is what is really appalling

    April 5, 2013 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  12. PhillyBuster

    Yep it was inappropriate, and yes it is no big deal. Talk about a mountain out of a molehill......

    April 5, 2013 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  13. doug

    agree the comment was harmless, however another example of this President getting a "PASS". Clinton or Bush would have been crucified for this!

    April 5, 2013 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  14. joseph carlson

    nukes loaded in NK and we are talking about this lol.. hope one reached that pathetic state california

    April 5, 2013 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  15. Dave

    Much ado about nothing.... let's talk about real issues

    April 5, 2013 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  16. Tom

    It was a compliment and that's it.
    Forget the whole fashion industry if compliments aren't allowed any more.
    She is good looking and he dares to say so.
    What's the problem?

    April 5, 2013 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  17. Michael

    I think people are just way too sensitive these days.

    April 5, 2013 07:48 pm at 7:48 pm |
  18. tom

    When has jealousy become an acceptable trait? If you take offense to someone else being complimented for their looks, then you are an ugly person, no matter what your looks are!

    April 5, 2013 07:48 pm at 7:48 pm |
  19. nunya

    Cry me a fricken River PLEASE.. this is rediculous people, Now were not allowed to comment on great looking women.. give me a break please, I think I am vommiting... get over it people... it was a nice comment, in good taste.. get your head and flush it down the toilet.. and tell me that your not that sensative.. I cant believe you panzies....

    April 5, 2013 07:48 pm at 7:48 pm |
  20. Sal

    compliment is a compliment. All negative things about it were already in people's head. I don't think it was a big deal. But, she does look good:)

    April 5, 2013 07:49 pm at 7:49 pm |
  21. edie simmons

    The truth is out LOL have you seen the rest of them scary

    April 5, 2013 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  22. Paul G.

    Never compliment women on their beauty. They were born with it so the compliment isn't worth much to them. Instead, compliment them on something they accomplished or did well.

    April 5, 2013 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  23. john

    So he's in trouble for telling the truth? Yes, she's very good looking. Do you feminist whackos have a problem with the truth?

    April 5, 2013 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  24. Tgbvt

    LoL, wow, I wonder how bad these morons would have freaked out if he'd said she was bad looking?

    April 5, 2013 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  25. Daniel

    Give us a break. The PC police can eat dirt. You ever notice that the women who object to another woman being complimented are not the best looking on the block?

    I am a Republican but I have to support the President on this. His intentions were just fine and honorable so PC police get a life. I'm sure the CA AG is quite accomplished and she happens to be very attactive – so what?

    April 5, 2013 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
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