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. Christine LEROY

    I would call that : gallantery ! M. Obama, was just gallant to this woman. In addition, he is a good taste, because she is very cute.

    April 6, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  2. Derp

    Being called attractive is a bad thing? Guess he should of told her to get back in the kitchen.

    April 6, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  3. G_Edwards

    "California's attorney general received an apology call from President Barack Obama..."

    Sly dog. What better way to have an excuse to call her up with Michelle's permission?


    April 6, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  4. Dr Tom

    There was no indication that he was judging her solely on her looks, though he did make that judgement in addition to statements about her abilities. There would have been nothing wrong with him saying this privately to her, but this was a public statement. The statement is also a judgement on all other state AGs as not being as good looking as her. The President should not be saying that publicly. He should apologize for his statement, not just for the fuss it caused.

    April 6, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  5. Trini

    As 75% of the world's women are uneducated,have no freedom, abused etc......its nice to see a woman of distinction,free , educated and beautiful. The women of North America are the luckiest women in the world!! My President was just expressing his love of strong,educated,beautiful women just like his wife...the first lady of distinction.

    Lets celebrate the power of our women!!

    April 6, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  6. CalmerVoice

    There is nothing wrong to make a very positive compliment about wonan's look. Crazy PC people, let Obama of your hook. Bravo, Mr. President!

    April 6, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  7. cgs

    I don't think Ms. Harris is attractive at all. But it shouldn't matter if she is competent.

    April 6, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  8. lord toronaga

    Let's face some facts here. If any Republican said that complement ( "binders full of women" ) the sky would fall. So...all you hypocrite liberals, back off from people criticizing the president. They have a definite point. As a conservative, I don't care what he said. It was a nice complement to a pretty woman. I care more about her being a extremist left winger. But...anyone is better than that low life Holder.

    April 6, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  9. Randy

    I am soooo annoyed that ANYONE can find a compliment insulting! You are just looking for something to complain about! GET A LIFE!

    April 6, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  10. lottie

    the president was being nice . since when are compliments bad? Gosh if this is the worst they can find compliment on MR President. I guess they would rather be fawning over the likes of a Mark Sanford. Now that's real classy.

    April 6, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  11. Theresa Foran

    What a load of garbage. It is far more insulting to be told you look tired by a co-worker, that is their kind way of saying "You look like crap today". I don't care who you are, it is always nice to receive a compliment on how you look. It is an embarassment. Glad I am Canadian.

    April 6, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  12. James PDX

    First the new world PC police tell you words and phrases that you can't say. Now even if you use accepted words, you can't compliment someone on certain things? PC is for people who are desperate to find some grounds on which they can incorrectly feel they are superior to others. They're not. They should just shut up and let us start enjoying our world again.

    April 6, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  13. Bruce Laube

    In the US we have freedom of speech and freedom of opinions. It is not wrong to state and opinion. However we seem to have many who think it appropriate for them to state their opinion in criticizing someones opinion.

    April 6, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  14. drkent3

    Hey, remember when Republican men were slobbering over Sarah Palin? Remember when Republican women were slobbering over Mitt Romney? Remember when conservatives were posting about how 'hot' conservative women are compared to liberal women? I don't remember this much outrage from conservatives then...

    April 6, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  15. Nanci Eisner

    Folks, lighten up. This PC rhetoric has gone too far.

    April 6, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  16. conwell2549

    Crying out loud lighten up people. What a bunch of drama queens

    April 6, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  17. conwell2549

    What a bunch of Drama Queens

    April 6, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  18. Kman66

    Liberals are the biggest hypocrites on Earth. Deny that, and not only are you a hypocrite, but a dishonest one.

    April 6, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  19. Robert

    She's not that cute. But compared to Michelle, she's a bombshell.

    April 6, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  20. Robert

    She's not that cute. But she's a bombshell compared to Michelle.

    April 6, 2013 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  21. Dee

    That woman is GORGEOUS! We remark all the time about what politicians look like, He spoke about her intelligence and her accomplishments FIRST! But I have to admit... I would be a LLLITTE jealous. But that's JUST me. Mrs. Obama is equally intelligent, accomplished and Gorgeous.

    April 6, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  22. paulronco

    He didn't say she was beautiful, he said she was beautiful above all others. There's a difference. It was a bad comment for a president to make. Is it worse than asserting his right to kill American citizens without due trial? Probably not, but then again, these types of arrogances go hand-in-hand.

    April 6, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  23. paulronco

    Here's a lesson in civility, America: It's not a compliment when it's made at someone else's expense. This is something you say to your buddy over beers when your girlfriend's not listening... it's not something you announce to the world when you're president of the United States. In this case I must say, P.C. Police 1, President 0

    April 6, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  24. g

    how could he say such a thing about a good looking lady with brains–impeach now

    April 6, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  25. Arno

    She is the best looking AG, get over it and move on

    April 6, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
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