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. sandara

    I have a wonderful sense of humor, but I think because of the troubles of the world, maybe Obama just shut his trap and stop trying to be so funny. Just run the country and shut the hell up!

    April 6, 2013 06:53 am at 6:53 am |
  2. kevin

    Yeah it's inappropriate for Prez to make the other eight female AGs losers in an impromptu beauty pageant. I dunno though Pam Bondi from Florida is cute too.

    Inappropriate for Prez to call out a woman as beautiful when she's a 'close friend', a fellow attorney and a few months younger than Mrs. Prez. He just said what he thought which is usually not appropriate for anyone.

    April 6, 2013 07:19 am at 7:19 am |
  3. Jim

    Got to love it when celebs and others defend this type of thing when 'their guy' does it but if this was a Republican? Good Lord, we'd have Meryl Streep screaming in the Senate chambers and Rob Lowe talking about "how I used to be the same type of no-class womanizer."

    April 6, 2013 07:32 am at 7:32 am |
  4. Dervish

    My God!!!! The world in some of its parts has gone CRAZY!!!!!!

    April 6, 2013 07:35 am at 7:35 am |
  5. GiveMeABreak

    "She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough"

    That quite a string of compliments from POTUS. Nobody seems to have any trouble with those.

    April 6, 2013 07:37 am at 7:37 am |
  6. Paul rusten

    It is sad that a president has to apologies for an innocent comment like this. USA has great qualities but too much PC is a worry!

    April 6, 2013 07:45 am at 7:45 am |
  7. Sultan Dhanani

    Its most difficult to compliment women. Often, it is either not enough or its inappropriate.

    April 6, 2013 07:49 am at 7:49 am |
  8. rs1201

    The remark was a compliment even if a bit insulting to other female AGs. What I'm more concerned about is that we have another affirmative action lawyer in place. She's even been mentioned as a candidate for the US Supreme Court should a vacancy come up. She's a Howard University graduate...OMG...that's where African Americans and whites go when they can't hack it at other universities. What I'm saying is totally factual and not racist. When my son needed radiation for his cancer treatment and I found out that the head of the oncology radiation dept was a Howard University medical school graduate...I ran with my son as fast as I could in the opposite direction towards Sloan Kettering and never looked back.

    April 6, 2013 08:09 am at 8:09 am |
  9. Brady

    You all don't understand at all. If a republican had said this the liberal left would be crucifying him telling the world he has no respect for women. Just like you all did to Mitt during the election. It can't be a two-way street. You all cannot beat up on guy because he is a republican and then defend the President because he is your liberal buddy.

    April 6, 2013 08:15 am at 8:15 am |
  10. Kcole

    The only time a woman need be offended by this comment is if there's a back story, involving a predator. Period. A man that is loyal to his wife, committed to his country, behaves with integrity... obviously means it as a compliment, so it should be accepted as one. Don't make this complicated. And for women who say he shouldn't focus on looks and focus on her job, you're nuts. You complain about a comment, but ignore what he's said about the wage laws? Look, when my pay is equal to my male colleague's pay, because you women were serious enough to really protest something worth protesting, I will pay you some respect. Until then, you're just complainers.

    April 6, 2013 08:21 am at 8:21 am |
  11. kite005

    I can already see all the emails from the same people who send disparaging ones about Pelosi, Hillary and others.

    April 6, 2013 08:29 am at 8:29 am |
  12. Wayne

    He was just being honest, she is the best looking. Good ole JFK would have done more than just talk.lol

    April 6, 2013 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  13. Chooch0253

    I do not care what President Obama says someone is not going to like it and try to make a big deal of it. No matter what it is. This comment is no different. Some people would find fault if he suggested he lifts the left cheek to pass gas, and would claim he is doing it all wrong that you must lift the right.

    April 6, 2013 08:46 am at 8:46 am |
  14. David

    The only one who might be offended, other than Republican pundits who just look for anything to criticize for reasons best known to them, is Michelle. If she doesn't care, we shouldn't either.

    April 6, 2013 08:50 am at 8:50 am |
  15. Keith A. Willis, Sr

    Hell she is fine, and the best looking AG in the country!!!

    April 6, 2013 09:02 am at 9:02 am |
  16. Stephen

    I'm a staunch Democrat but not so much with the PC crowd. Get a grip people. When a compliment is twisted to become a slander, it's time to take a good, long look at the twisters.

    April 6, 2013 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  17. Anonymous

    People are saying that the President called the Att. Gen. attractive. In fact he did not say that. He simply said that she was the "best looking" one. Couldn't this also mean that the others were homely and she is at most average?

    April 6, 2013 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  18. Grey

    For those who don't think there is a massive bias in media... put these words under George W. Bush instead and see how the press would be reacting.

    April 6, 2013 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  19. J.M.

    If the US had stayed British, this never would have happened. I only hope China will do better!

    April 6, 2013 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  20. ajean

    The only distraction from her accomplishments is that once again a big deal is being made out of nothing, he mentioned her accomphishments first, then he complimented her. What is the harm in that?

    April 6, 2013 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  21. Mark in San Diego

    If this was a Republican the media would be saying the exact opposite, but they defend this President at all costs.

    April 6, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  22. George Gray

    This is the event that should be marked as the point in history where our society has officially gone insane with political correctness: that someone should be so pilloried for praising a friend's physical attractiveness. Unbelievable!

    April 6, 2013 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  23. ED FL

    To start with it would be hard to find a Republican that cute to be a GOP Politician for any job . She would have to be married to a GOP Male and that would be a tough job trying to find a handsome GOP Male that wasn' out looking for anyone as cute as himself in addition to having to Challenge the [GOP DON JUAN] NEWTY.

    April 6, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  24. Puddin

    The president can tell me how nice-looking I am any time. I would try to believe it, even though I would know it was a joke, I hate to tell him, but Bill Clinton tried and tried to get a beautiful woman in as his attorney general, but the Repubs kept preventing him. After trying several times, he finally nominated Janet Reno, Wah La!

    April 6, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  25. chaing

    Must be a slow news day to have to put this in the news. And for those who were offended by the compliment....get over it!!! There must be more issues you can focus on that are more important and real.

    April 6, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
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