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. Ben

    Obama is always sorry

    April 5, 2013 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  2. Kevin

    So he finds her attractive. He is human after all.

    April 5, 2013 11:19 pm at 11:19 pm |
  3. Bob in CA

    Never thought I would say this but I agree with the President. It was between friends and was truthful. Why does a compliment have to be such a sideshow?

    April 5, 2013 11:21 pm at 11:21 pm |
  4. Just Me

    What a load of crap.....this country is far too concerned about a genuine compliment made to a friend and that it should be viewed as insulting to her and the rest of womankind. Like I said, it's a load of crap.

    It would be very different if the comment was made in a harassing or disparaging way, but it was not. Get over yourselves and stop thinking that every time a man makes a compliment about a woman's looks as being creepy or insulting. Wait, maybe all you women complaining would rather that men say you are ugly.....yeah that must be it. Oh, and btw, I'm a woman and I have absolutely no issues with receiving compliments from the male population of the world as long as they are respectful.

    April 5, 2013 11:23 pm at 11:23 pm |
  5. marctheduck

    Lordie this is funny. We're so politically correct now that even the politically correct can't keep up with the political correctness!

    April 5, 2013 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  6. thiagan

    The whole world is unraveling at it's seems, are any of us really surprised that some feel that an obvious compliment to a close friend, deep down is a slur? Apparently in this hip world, dumb masquerades as intelligent. How sad?

    April 5, 2013 11:26 pm at 11:26 pm |
  7. Joe Forte Sr.

    As long as there will be men and women in the world there will be remarks about how men and women look. I dismiss the notion that we are void of real feelings about beauty. She is a beautiful woman and she knows it. The President commented on the woman as well as her accomplishments.

    April 5, 2013 11:26 pm at 11:26 pm |
  8. Larry

    More wasted time on nonsense

    April 5, 2013 11:31 pm at 11:31 pm |
  9. Pam

    But "binders of women" was an insult right? Double standards people, double standards.

    April 5, 2013 11:33 pm at 11:33 pm |
  10. CallaLillyBlue

    It as a compliment!!!!! Nothing wrong with giving a beautiful woman a compliment!!. Seriously everyone???

    April 5, 2013 11:34 pm at 11:34 pm |
  11. Bill Ball

    This sort of crap is getting way out of hand

    April 5, 2013 11:36 pm at 11:36 pm |
  12. Evelyn Connaway

    As an 86 year old grandmother, I thought it was a compliment. When she was elected, I thought the same thing about her, not only smart, but a beautiful woman to boot! The President should certainly be allowed to appreciate beauty and brains and be allowed to say so!

    April 5, 2013 11:36 pm at 11:36 pm |
  13. Lee

    Quit hanging up on being "PC". It was meant to be levity. Pull the stick out of your keesters and get over it.

    April 5, 2013 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  14. Kobe

    So she graduated from Howard undergrad and for law school went to Hastings. Hastings isn't bad, barely top 50, but still it's known for its diversity. It's clear her looks and her diverse ethnicity is a big part of her achievement, so I don't see nothing wrong with Obama pointing that out.

    April 5, 2013 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  15. Charles

    Ok, she IS beautiful. Wow...

    April 5, 2013 11:39 pm at 11:39 pm |
  16. Dave Green

    I wonder how the Obama bashers will react to this. On the one hand, they are clearly anti-pc and would never support the "PC Police," but on the other it's Obama! hmmmm Quite the dilemma.

    April 5, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  17. Nichole

    and THIS is what America is worried about with the North Korea BS? really? only in this ridiculous country.

    April 5, 2013 11:42 pm at 11:42 pm |
  18. Jered

    Gosh, this nation has gotten way too PC. A compliment is a compliment and leave it at that. People, this is business. Get over it.

    April 5, 2013 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  19. Escher7

    He first said she was brilliant and dedicated. Politically correct enough for me. My only concern is how Michelle took it. I hear she accidentally called herself a single mother around the same time.

    Now, back to the Economy, N.Korea, Iranian Nukes etc. etc.

    April 5, 2013 11:44 pm at 11:44 pm |
  20. anon

    It was a joke. Get over yourselves politically correct America. I don't eve like Obama and the reaction to this sickens me. Get over yourselves.

    April 5, 2013 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  21. Stacie

    Are people serious? This was an "offensive" comment? Seriously? Here's the thing. I am SUPER far left – like falling off the left side of the ruler left. But I am SO SICK of hearing about how "offended" people are by dumb offhand comments that someone made – and that aren't particularly offensive at all. He complimented her looks? So what? This is the height of offense now in this country? Give me a break. I've started ignoring half the news I hear, because it's all this meaningless tripe.

    April 5, 2013 11:52 pm at 11:52 pm |
  22. Sal

    Great way to get people talking about her. Nicely done.

    April 5, 2013 11:54 pm at 11:54 pm |
  23. Technoman

    He should have called her ugly then maybe he would have actually had something to apologize for.

    April 6, 2013 12:00 am at 12:00 am |
  24. James

    Why apologise for speaking the truth?

    April 6, 2013 12:03 am at 12:03 am |
  25. garatchet

    She is the best looking attorney general. He was only stating the truth.

    April 6, 2013 12:05 am at 12:05 am |
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