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. Pete

    My God people! Why is everyone so sensitive to something so innocent! Our president gave a friendly compliment and it almost seems like he groped her or something? He did not use vulgar or inappropriate language, so where is the problem? No one complained when JFK, Clinton and other good looking presidents received millions of compliments, so why can not equally be just as innocently when it goes the other way? People really need to take it easy and just live life!

    April 6, 2013 12:05 am at 12:05 am |
  2. Mike

    This is kind of blown out of proportion. It was a lighthearted comment and compliment. It's not like he said something that commented on her anatomy or was risque. Saying someone is "great looking" is not exactly demeaning...

    April 6, 2013 12:07 am at 12:07 am |
  3. Nick

    As a man, if a woman were giving a speech and in jest called me the best-looking person doing my job, I would be flattered and amused. Women should understand that by taking offense to superficial compliments, they expose insecurity, and do an injustice to the concept of equality. If you are not ashamed of what you are, you can take a compliment without becoming offended that you're being definded by said characteristic. Part of being proud of your femininity means not being threatened by it. Men do not squim under compliment, nor should you.

    April 6, 2013 12:09 am at 12:09 am |
  4. Chris

    His remark was inappropriate because the same type of remark would not ordinarily be made to a male.
    A remark like "how hadsome he is or how good looking he is " is not usually made to a businessman of any kind by our president.

    April 6, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  5. slotzky

    Can't hide those true colors forever. Nice going, POTUS.

    April 6, 2013 12:16 am at 12:16 am |
  6. Jorge Sedano

    So much for the President being a role model to follow....you say that you get fired...

    April 6, 2013 12:22 am at 12:22 am |
  7. John

    This just in president Obama is a real person he is a human being. There are a lot of things I don't like about him, but I wish people wouldn't freak out when he shows he's human. Its makes me feel better knowing a human is in control at least in this administration. Better than certain evil android cabinet members of the last administration running the show.

    April 6, 2013 12:23 am at 12:23 am |
  8. Beavis

    You must be joking. Get a grip you ridiculous people.

    April 6, 2013 12:25 am at 12:25 am |
  9. CraigRB

    Big deal. It was a compliment...a very nice thing to say about someone. I can't believe all the fuss. Ridiculous.

    April 6, 2013 12:27 am at 12:27 am |
  10. Neesh

    That's his whole problem. He's too busy playing instead of taking things seriously.

    April 6, 2013 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  11. willowhill

    Oh, I am sure he has a whole notebook of women that he admires. A whole notebook full. Get it? Nevermind.

    April 6, 2013 12:31 am at 12:31 am |
  12. Sharon

    His remarks were no disparaging or disrespectful. I'm sure she appreciated EVERY compliment he gave her. She is very pretty and he'd have to be blind not to notice. Next-

    April 6, 2013 12:37 am at 12:37 am |
  13. josh

    Call me beautiful. I won't mind.

    April 6, 2013 12:37 am at 12:37 am |
  14. easchner

    The best way to check if it is inappropriate is to flip it and see if it still seems harmful. If a prominent female leader called the president "the best looking president in recent history" not only would no one take offense, but if it was even mentioned it would be in the light hearted portion of the news. So... no, not inappropriate.

    Besides, currently there are only 8 femal attorneys general in the US so if nothing else his joke helped bring up the topic that women are underrepresented in statewide offices.

    April 6, 2013 12:41 am at 12:41 am |
  15. Multilingual

    Isn't it kind of ironic that "kamala" means "terrible" in Finnish...

    April 6, 2013 12:42 am at 12:42 am |
  16. Toolttime

    It was a compliment. End of story. Who says it was bad to say? The media?.. Hahaha they are a joke.

    April 6, 2013 12:44 am at 12:44 am |
  17. at

    what Mr president should worry is how he is going to face MO. I think the remark was nothing out of line.

    April 6, 2013 12:46 am at 12:46 am |
  18. JM

    Oh no. He made a quip that complimented her.

    How awful. She's brilliant and attractive...things that no one else in this country aspires to. Close all the gyms, stores and universities.

    April 6, 2013 12:49 am at 12:49 am |
  19. momzna

    On the other hand, Michelle Obama called herself a "single mother" in a recent interview. Something is brewing in the first family. 🙂

    April 6, 2013 12:52 am at 12:52 am |
  20. Linda

    Oh for crying out loud. Get OVER yourselves, people. It was an innocent, complimentary, and casual remark, which, BTW, happens to be true. Would any of you nit-pickers slam somebody for saying some man was the best looking guy in whatever position? PUH-LEASE. Did you miss the part where he said: ""She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough…"? Stop trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill and get a life!!

    April 6, 2013 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  21. Mike from Illinois

    It's hilarious to see all of the people excusing Obama for this (whether it really was "OK" or not). He would have CRUCIFIED an opponent for a similar comment – his attacks would have been vicious and relentless. The hypocrisy from his defenders here is, as usual, ASTOUNDING.

    April 6, 2013 12:59 am at 12:59 am |
  22. Pastapharian

    Harmless remark between friends at a private fundraiser. Anyone getting their panties in a bunch over is needs to lighten up and get a life.

    April 6, 2013 01:14 am at 1:14 am |
  23. Frederick Rich

    I am so pleased that some observers have taken the higher road. IT WAS A COMPLIMENT!! The President and CA Attorney General are long time friends, so why do people stir up trouble over NOTHING? A.G. Harris was certainly not offended and she doesn't need anyone in America to be offended for her!

    April 6, 2013 01:40 am at 1:40 am |
  24. Anita Brooks

    I goofed up, President Obama, paid the AG (a woman) a nice complement....Go and find real news to report....

    April 6, 2013 01:57 am at 1:57 am |
  25. Mandy323

    I cannot believe what offends people these days. Give me a break.

    April 6, 2013 01:57 am at 1:57 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