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. Ina

    Good grief! All this flap over a perfectly harmless remark.....and to an old friend at that. I'm fairly sure that Ms Harris was not insulted or thought much about it until the "news" media started the brouhaha when they might have been more worthily employed doing some real news reporting.. What a waste of time.

    April 5, 2013 08:08 pm at 8:08 pm |
  2. Dirge13

    "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."
    How nice, he apologized for the destraction and not the remark.

    April 5, 2013 08:10 pm at 8:10 pm |
  3. Burt

    Had Romney said this liberals would have attacked him and it would have been an election loser. However now that it's the other way around....

    April 5, 2013 08:12 pm at 8:12 pm |
  4. Wilmer

    PC gone way too wild. I'm getting sick of it. Oh, by the way, I'm considered a liberal.

    April 5, 2013 08:13 pm at 8:13 pm |
  5. Sandra LeVin

    With the Korean Peninsula in such a high state of tension, all the trouble in the Middle East, THIS is what we're concerned with?

    April 5, 2013 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  6. tom

    so he called a pretty woman pretty oh no how terrible impeach him

    April 5, 2013 09:00 pm at 9:00 pm |
  7. yarrov

    My 2 cents.
    Cent 1. How would Obama feel if someone said that his wife was not the best looking First Lady?
    Cent 2. Obama needs to apologize to all women working for the federal government who are not best looking.

    April 5, 2013 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  8. richard

    Yeah. I remember someone once said I was good looking. what a jerk.

    April 5, 2013 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  9. Chuck

    Freudian Slips, first Michelle says shes a "Single Mother" then now this

    Life at the Obama home not so warm and fuzzy maybe?

    April 5, 2013 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    This president is the least presidential of any the US has ever had. He is below par in every respect.

    April 5, 2013 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  11. Ryan

    As if we needed another scathing example of conservative hypocrisy, here we are, witnessing the people who, for the most part, DID NOT SUPPORT the Violence Against Women Act, or the Fair Pay for Women Act, who are also actively trying to strip women of their right to choose what they do with their own bodies (and let's not forget the rape comments), who suddenly pretend to be proud feminists the second Obama calls a woman beautiful. Give me a freaking break. Enough with this fake act, conservatives.

    April 5, 2013 10:35 pm at 10:35 pm |
  12. DaveD

    I'm not an Obama fan boy defending every action....but this was harmless. Too many ppl are being offended for someone else. If I'm offended I'll let you know. I'm glad he apologized for the distraction instead of the innocent comment.

    April 5, 2013 10:35 pm at 10:35 pm |
  13. erica

    my god, what is the world coming to. everything is political this political that. i praise obama for his humor and trying to be human (unlike the vast majority of government and corporate businessmen)... oops businessmen has the word "men" in it... i'm so sorry, please forgive my misspeaking.

    April 5, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  14. Mike

    I am not an Obama supporter; but people get real. Has political correctness gotten to the point that a simple statement of fact is not allowed? Dear friends, this is the problem with "liberalism"; a systematic denial of reality. That said, it was an awkward statement. Oh well.

    April 5, 2013 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  15. DR

    ok. he was payign her a compliment. The idiots can overblow this as much as they want because they are looking for somethign to blow up about. Dear god the people in this society are going insane. Focus on the real issues please. that is not a Left or Right statement, just a truth statement!

    April 5, 2013 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  16. Willie LaFleur

    It was an honest and harmless compliment that was given after he recognized her professional abilities.ALL of you narrow minded people should get a life.

    April 5, 2013 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    I agree. It was NO BIG DEAL!

    April 5, 2013 10:40 pm at 10:40 pm |
  18. reality check

    This might have been a casual comment or joke....BUT, not very Presidential. AND, I find it interesting this isn't offensive to so many who crucified Romney for his binders. The constant double standardgets tiresome to those of us in the middle.

    April 5, 2013 10:41 pm at 10:41 pm |
  19. Steve

    People are so ignorant they can't take a joke?

    April 5, 2013 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  20. Art

    Ridiculous to make an issue out of this. Freedom of speech applies to the president.

    April 5, 2013 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  21. Bob

    President Obama tell all the fools complaining to stick it somewhere not nice. What in God's green earth have we come to when we cannot give a woman a compliment. You said NOTHING wrong.

    April 5, 2013 10:55 pm at 10:55 pm |
  22. Say what?

    Really why would you need to apologize for that? It was a compliment, I didn't know giving someone a compliment was against the law or a crime for that matter.

    April 5, 2013 10:57 pm at 10:57 pm |
  23. jodyhall77

    I hate political correctness but this is beneath the standards of a U.S, president. You are not running a used car dealership Mr. President.

    April 5, 2013 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  24. Miriam

    Come on people, get a grip. This PC stuff has gotten way out of line. There are so many things our Country needs to address. Not this crap.

    April 5, 2013 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  25. Lin McKay

    Obama cannot appoint her to anything while in office so he was pretty stupid in his comments. It puts her in a different position and isolates her from her legal peers. It may be a joke and off the cuff but still wrong and totally inappropriate. If someone said something similar about his older daughter he would not be pleased. What was he thinking . . . motor-mouth, for sure.

    April 5, 2013 11:03 pm at 11:03 pm |
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