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. Casey Elgin

    Obviously our president treats objects like women.

    April 5, 2013 07:53 pm at 7:53 pm |
  2. Andy

    Obama ur right shes a beautiful woman. So what u told her. Everybody needs to get a life and get over it. So many problems in the world and we freak out bcuz a man tells a woman shes beautiful. Now u know whats wrong with this country!

    April 5, 2013 07:54 pm at 7:54 pm |
  3. Daniel

    I think it was a harmless comment. Yeah he shouldn't of done it but jeez folks don't we have better things to do.

    April 5, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  4. rad666

    Has he complimented on a male official being the best looking?

    April 5, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  5. buck

    people need to lighten up. and quit trying to get every one to fit into a box. people speak different, talk different and think different.

    April 5, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  6. Jacqueline

    Well, what I think is that what Barack said was appropriate and useful. How many times do women get put down right and left?
    It was simply a compliment. Of course, men always take that wrong, and some jeolous women. I'd like to know what's wrong with beauty and genius? Dumb or intelligent, beauty or grubs, women are still put down.

    April 5, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  7. mblmbl

    Hmm, any women sticking up for the offended sensibilities of all of those ugly male attorney generals who were insulted? Or is it that insults of males are taken for granted in our society like another Bud Lite commercial? Just wondering...

    April 5, 2013 07:57 pm at 7:57 pm |
  8. Zach

    It was a compliment!!! People seriously need mental help if they think that was offensive. what is wrong with this country.....

    April 5, 2013 07:57 pm at 7:57 pm |
  9. Johnny America

    He's her boss, she's his employee ....................... in just what context is it ok for the boss to make such a comment about an employee? Would it be ok if he were a grocer and she a cashier? How about if he ran a manufacturing company and she work on the production line? What if he were the chief of police and she one of his officers?
    So, somebody tell me please ........... in what boss/employee relationship is ok for the boss to say: She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking cashier/line worker/police officer?
    If it's not acceptable in any of those boss/employee relationships , then it's not acceptable in this one either.

    April 5, 2013 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  10. RF Burns

    As long as it's a democrat making that comment it's OK.

    April 5, 2013 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  11. lha

    War with Korea or syria or Iran is rather possible...so what do we focus on? amazing that this gets ink, pixels or whatever it is.

    April 5, 2013 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  12. Jeb

    Brilliant, dedicated, tough, and beautiful......what woman would be offended by that?

    April 5, 2013 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  13. Fred Laflamme

    Since most of the comments opposing the Prez's comments come from women let's all agree that every one of those female commenters are among the most beautiful commenters in the country and maybe all the drama will end...

    April 5, 2013 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  14. Ed Ryan

    I disagree with every Obama policy since he came into office but you people are ridiculous. He gave the lady a nice compliment. So what. Even I knew he wasn't demeaning her accomplishments. CNN...Top Story? Really! Good grief. Get a grip.

    April 5, 2013 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  15. don in albuquerque

    Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clear too the bone. I agree with the President-–She is very appealing. However if he said it was a pretty day people would only begin screaming "but it's raining in Seattle."

    April 5, 2013 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  16. allison_28560

    Sorry but I work for the government and a comment like that by one of the military members I work with could lose them rank and position – AND HE IS THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF !!!!

    April 5, 2013 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  17. Starrface

    I'm very surprised a bunch of republicans didn't jump over this comment. They mouth off at everything else the president does and says.

    April 5, 2013 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  18. cole

    Oh gawd!!!! I wish someone said I was the best looking something or anouther. Geeshh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 5, 2013 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  19. allison_28560

    Oh i agree it was relatively harmless – it WAS very very INAPPROPRIATE !

    April 5, 2013 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  20. PK

    She is a beautiful woman who, as the president mentioned, also happens to be "brilliant and she's dedicated,and tough." What about that could possibly be an insult to women.

    April 5, 2013 08:02 pm at 8:02 pm |
  21. Nuclear Warheads

    It seems the Comments all fall down Party Lines. Democrats don't mind it at all. Republicans are fumin' for some reason (although, they don't mind anyone saying the same exact thing about Sarah Palin, who isn't even good-looking or of sufficient intelligence to survive on the Political scene. Then, there are the Swing Voters, such as myself, who honestly couldn't care less what he said in the very last sentence of the very last paragraph of some off camera comments to a group of close supporters, who, even they (the ones that actually heard it) were not the slightest bit offended. He, after all, spent the overwhelming majority of his opinion talking about her qualifications, this strategy could vastly implode in the face of those trying to use it!

    April 5, 2013 08:02 pm at 8:02 pm |
  22. Conrad

    In our 24/7 news reporting we make everything we can a story to fill out the page on the internet and the time on TV- especially cable. We used to have really important bulletins, now we have a philosophy of twisting any story into breaking news.

    April 5, 2013 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  23. Roger

    Top news story? Big headlines? Nothing else to report? No stories about North Korea or other stories laced with fear? Is this it now? You can't say a woman is good looking? Berlusconi does it all a time. Can a woman say a man is handsome? Hey, if anyone has a problem with what Obama said, let it be Michele. If complimenting a woman is a crime then I'm a repeat offender. Guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

    April 5, 2013 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  24. USAPeasant

    What the heck is wrong with President Obama calling this other woman good looking? He is married to the best looking First Lady in our history. If Obama should be apologizing to anyone he ought to be apologizing to Michelle!

    April 5, 2013 08:04 pm at 8:04 pm |
  25. Dapple

    People are good at throwing fuel on a non-existent fire. The only person that doesn't seem upset by the whole thing was Harris herself. If you ask me, if she wasn't bothered by it then people should probably just let it go.

    April 5, 2013 08:08 pm at 8:08 pm |
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