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. mike johnson

    ... but imagine if George Bush had done that

    April 6, 2013 02:01 am at 2:01 am |
  2. Dom

    We now must say sorry if we say a woman is attractive? Wow! Good job reactionary insecure women. You finally got it so we are not allowed to notice a woman is pretty.

    April 6, 2013 02:05 am at 2:05 am |
  3. sybil

    It definitely was a compliment but as an Obama supporter, I would have been appalled had Newt Gingrich said it. So what's good for the goose is good for the gander. He really should know better than to make any kind of remark that could be misconstrued, considering how hundreds of politicians have been called on the carpet for making questionable off-the-cuff remarks.

    April 6, 2013 02:11 am at 2:11 am |
  4. Josh

    Call me good looking as many times you want. I won't mind.

    April 6, 2013 02:17 am at 2:17 am |
  5. Homer10

    Oh come on now. It was a complement, and a fact. Deal with it.

    April 6, 2013 02:19 am at 2:19 am |
  6. Mr. Man

    This whole thing is a ridiculous distraction.
    People need to grow thicker skin and shut up.

    April 6, 2013 02:26 am at 2:26 am |
  7. Behjat

    Can the President do or say anything that you people approve of? What is wrong with being told you're beautiful or good looking? I have been told that I am smart , hard working, beautiful and or good looking many times in my life, and I enjoyed the compliment each and every time. Get a life !

    April 6, 2013 02:43 am at 2:43 am |
  8. helenecha

    Guess what? Had President Obama neglected that people would have their instinctive views that are far more beyond what he thought possible as he might have took the words that never trust appearance in his mind seriously? If he had not, he should make an apology to her privately rather than publicly, anyway.

    April 6, 2013 02:55 am at 2:55 am |
  9. Donnie

    Certainly seemed like a compliment to me, not much different when Sarah Palin was dubbed "The Hottest Governor from the Coldest State"...no one seemed to take issue with that, if fact tee shirts were sold. Seems if it's this particular President no matter whether its meant as a compliment or not it will be an issue... Move on get over it...sometimes it's much more graceful to just accept the compliment and move on

    April 6, 2013 03:30 am at 3:30 am |
  10. Unuma22

    Wow............Really.............. People were the heck is your humor. Why do we have to ALWAYS take things out of context or deem them for what they are not. There are a lt more other things to worry about than a comment passed on the AG.....

    April 6, 2013 03:55 am at 3:55 am |
  11. Pat

    This is one seriously misguided, naive, and downright destructive president. But picking on him for this comment? Holy crap. She's a beautiful woman – if she's offended by hearing that, I'd be most surprised. Can we just be people, people?

    April 6, 2013 03:56 am at 3:56 am |
  12. cheeseroll

    I guess that the feminist-extremists are out in arms again.

    Is it a coincidence that most of them look hideous? That's why they have a problem with compliments on a female's physical beauty?

    April 6, 2013 03:57 am at 3:57 am |
  13. Sandy

    She's gorgeous. I would be very pleased if the Prez paid me such a compliment...it was true, after all. I'm sure the woman has a mirror!

    April 6, 2013 04:16 am at 4:16 am |
  14. Michal from Poland

    Americans what is wrong with you? In Poland when man see good looking woman he say that she is pretty. In USA when someone say that, then you are mad for him. What is wrong with you people? Obama is great man and now when he say a complement you are mad for him? I realy don't understand... Kamala Harris is realy nice looking woman so if I say that she is pretty then you will be mad on me? Maybe you will kill me for that? What kind of people are you?

    April 6, 2013 04:28 am at 4:28 am |
  15. Christopher J Hoffman

    I'm no Obama fan, but COME ON! The president compliments a person on their appearance (a friend, no less) and that is somehow a scandal or an insult to her abilities? LIGHTEN UP PEOPLE. (and I really deplore Obama's policies, just to be clear)

    April 6, 2013 04:48 am at 4:48 am |
  16. Fsjunkie

    I see it all the time in my line of work. Feminism has made femininity itself the thing to be feared and rejected. I've got too much to lose to be a victim of feminism. So in many of those instances where males and females have interacted naturally, I'm stoic and standoffish. It's gotten to the point where a man in any position of power is taking a huge risk by NOT discriminating on the basis of gender. I don't mean withholding opportunities or pay, I'm talking about keeping women in the workplace at an arm's length. Don't get me started on the folly of getting married in the 21st century....

    April 6, 2013 05:04 am at 5:04 am |
  17. Phaerisee

    It is easy to forgive the President given his record on women's issues. The first bill signed by President Barack Obama was The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This act requires equal pay for equal work.

    April 6, 2013 05:25 am at 5:25 am |
  18. Dondi 2013

    Wow! Complimenting a person on their looks is a no-no in today's American political circle! Even if you happen to have known this person for quite some time. And even if that person is quite good looking indeed! And the person is a woman and you mention her strong attributes also! I hope he doesn't slip and say that is own wife is the best looking First Lady he has ever seen. That would really upset some folks to the max!!!! Calling well dressed, good looking woman, "good looking"! OMG. What's next?

    April 6, 2013 05:25 am at 5:25 am |
  19. Damon

    Wow! This whole controversy is a complete joke! This is a classic example of "reaching"!

    April 6, 2013 06:12 am at 6:12 am |
  20. Jay

    I believe that another woman knows better than me: a man if someone is giving her a compliment. I trust her judgement. People need to lighten up.

    April 6, 2013 06:17 am at 6:17 am |
  21. Ricardo Williams

    It must have been a compliment. Are people jealous that she is best looking? Wouldn't it be an insult if he had called her ugly? So wouldn't it must be a compliment to say she is the best looking? Why everyone so touchy about words? Do we have to be so emotional about everything? If she is not offended then I'm not.

    April 6, 2013 06:18 am at 6:18 am |
  22. Tompike

    From Düsseldorf, Germany
    I thought only here in G people with a small brain go crazy by any item. But you have the same problem in the States, lol. A Mr. President!!! has to appologize for a great compliment, because some jerky starry-eyed idealist complain. Are there no more serious problems to go and complain for in the States? May be in future, if a husband makes a compliment to his wife, a dog, other neighbours child or women in public, he may go under punishment.

    April 6, 2013 06:22 am at 6:22 am |
  23. Sara

    God, people sure do make something out of nothing, don't they? He's not sitting there, criticizing her actions but praising her appearance. He adds it as a compliment. Just like George Clooney and Barack Obama themselves are complimented on their attractiveness.

    Whatever. I'm a feminist and I think the women who called this "disgraceful" and "inappropriate" need to check themselves and revisit the purpose of their beliefs.

    April 6, 2013 06:36 am at 6:36 am |
  24. Bob Ramos

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Obama said, according to the report.
    President Obama should not have aplogized for simply telling the truth. The only appropriate response to the folks who found fault with his remark – GET A LIFE.

    April 6, 2013 06:42 am at 6:42 am |
  25. Rob

    Seriously? What ever happened to taking things in context? It seems these days there are hounds of all sort waiting to jump on someone for something they say or do, whether it's deserved, or as in this case, entirely not. Settle down and focus your energy where it makes sense – that's the only way you'll make the difference you're hoping to make.

    April 6, 2013 06:51 am at 6:51 am |
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