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. ug

    Yep...he is sorry alright...

    April 6, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  2. Mark

    If President Obama apologized to Ms. Harris and Ms. Harris accepted his apology, then the matter is settled.

    April 6, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  3. stephen Pagnozzi

    to all you conservative paranoids out there, the class that Pres.Obama has shown over the years far outway whatever rare missteps he has taken. If you care to look at his total statement he mentioned her intelligence and her diligence before he mentioned her attractiveness. Also the type of individual and the care and concern he has shown over women seems to me that's just what it was a harmless misstep.

    April 6, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  4. skipper_sam

    Why has nobody noticed that The president is wrong ?

    Pamela Jo "Pam" Bondi the current Attorney General of Florida is way better looking !

    April 6, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  5. Monica

    Well, I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican (and reading through these comments I remember once again why that is...) but I wish men would learn one thing: DO NOT comment on woman's looks in a professional environment. There. Is that so hard? Write it down. I know that "some women" thrive on that, I get it, they're idiots.

    Majority of women WILL feel uncomfortable with such comment at a workplace. I always feel uncomfortable around a man that would make such comment, I don't know if he has a crush, I don't know if he's gonna be asking me out – so I try to avoid him, and most importantly I don't know if when he compliments my work later on, is it because he wants to get in my pants or is it because I did good work, and the list goes on and on. I can't even imagine how embarrassing would it be to have a President of US make such comment in front of her colleagues, I would want the ground to open under my feet.

    And I wonder when is the press gonna start commenting on the so obviously fake relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama. These two people obviously have nothing to do with one another. How would a REAL wife feel if her husband kept making comments like these ( no, this is not the first time for the President) publicly about other women? Michelle constantly slips and says she's a single mom, they hardly look at each other in candid photos and if she looks at him, I'm afraid for his life, can we stop the charade? What a mess...

    April 6, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  6. bip

    Picture this, the CEO of a major company calls one of his female employees the best looking employee he has, in front of the person he is talking about. Then all of the other women find out about the comment too. We would think this CEO is not being appropriate and would probably think they are not a good leader.

    April 6, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  7. sarge325

    Those defending the president for making a simple compliment are missing the point. He made the compliment about her looks in a public address. He's certainly welcome to compliment his friend's looks when they are speaking casually, but to include this comment in a public address that is supposedly about her professional qualifications is chauvanistic and demeaning.

    Ask yourself: wouldn't it seem odd if Nancy Pelosi were introducing a male senator and said he was the most handsome man in the senate?

    Ask yourself: if Romney had said exactly what the presdient said, wouldn't the left crucify him?

    April 6, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  8. w2xab

    I am happy to know that our President doesn't need an eye exam! It is well past the time when the press should be reporting issues that really matter and not that AG Harris could be the hottest AG in America.

    April 6, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  9. Shawn

    I am glad to see many of you people see this for what it is. Obama is a GOD and anything he does is wonderful. Keep loving this man, we all know there is nothing he can do wrong.

    Right, Sheep?

    April 6, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  10. David

    I'm a very strong conservative. Look, if the chick is good looking you gotta call it like you see it. Lighten up you babies.

    April 6, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  11. steven harnack

    If the President had made that comment about someone that he had never or had just met then the complainers might have a dubious point but this was a semi-private gathering among old friends for crisake! It's just business as usual from the GOP but the PC crowd has officially gone insane on this one!

    April 6, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  12. Xty

    The comment has nothing to do with her work ethics or dedication to duty. Comment was out of place.

    April 6, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  13. Spam Eater

    After having to look at thunder thighs hereford face mooochelle all the time, it's little wonder that Barry is checking out the white chicks.

    April 6, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  14. theemptyone1

    HYPOCRISY 101; A woman spends extraordinary time doing her hair, putting on make-up, puts on lipstick as this one has and then if she gets noticed for it, the commenter is to blame? Women spend that time on their appearance trying to look good as it is to their advantage. A man, any man, notices it and makes a comment is NOT to blame. She was fishing for compliments and ADVANTAGES. Now all you female newscasters, tell me you aren't trying to look attractive. Every honest person knows that female newscasters are primarily chosen for their looks first.

    April 6, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  15. theemptyone1

    Hypocrisy is in doing your hair, doing make up, lipstick and then being annoyed when someone makes a positive comment about your looks? I don't mean her, I mean everyone doing it for her. This is just another Feminist, PC club to beat men with and pure hypocrisy.

    April 6, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  16. cat

    Compliments, yes, are lovely. It's not the compliment that's the problem. It's the context that is the problem. The President was at a fundraiser. This was a professional setting and it's not appropriate time or place. Being liberal or conservative is not the issue here (so all you partisan hacks give it a rest). The issue is maintaining a professional environment. In a modern environment we are trying to put looks aside and concentrate on competency. To hire someone or perceive that someone is more competent because of their looks is the problem.

    April 6, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  17. Palin Power

    Sarah Palin is not only better looking than Kamala Harris, she is way more accomplished and far more superior. Sarah Palin will be president while Kamala will not.

    April 6, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  18. Truth Monger

    It seems that most of the viewers here have it right. It was a compliment to a friend. The PC-Police have been going too far for a long time. Gain some common sense.

    And by the way, taller men tend to get paid more than shorter men. Attractive men tend to get paid more than pudgy men. Men are judged by their appearances too. Maybe it's time we start talking about the affect of physical appearances (both male and female) on success in the workplace.

    April 6, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  19. Wayne Swenson

    "The trick is this: keep your eye on the ball. Even when you can't see the ball." Tom Robbins. Get to work and start solving problems!

    April 6, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  20. Bob

    [start sarcasm]
    You must be serious all the time! There's no time for jokes.
    [end sarcasm]

    April 6, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  21. d. wolfe

    I am now convinced beyond any doubt that the 24/7 news cycle is pathetic. The fact that this comment, which was a complement people, was so taken out of context & blown up to outlandish proportions proves my point! For God's sake people – get a life!

    April 6, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  22. T

    I've been around a looooong time. I've never seen or heard such continuing disgust for anyone, let alone this POTUS. There is – as always, a definite negative pre-disposition on ANYTHING relative to THIS president, hmmmmmm, I wonder why? You mean to tell me that people and politicians have become so one-sided in their trashy view of president Obama that you would even take offense of a verbal complement expressed to a "friend" of his? I could write a 500 page book on just how far this country has fallen and is potentially self-destructing because of "generational hatred" continually against this man.

    April 6, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  23. Jeff

    BIAS check, If you hated Romneys " Binders full of women comment" but dont mind Obamas "Best looking" comment, you are biased

    April 6, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  24. dougjmiller

    Obama's apology was self-serving, self-righteous rubbish. Obama should be apologizing to the American people for trying to ruin our nation. Doesn't the media ever tire of glorifying this monster? As Obama tries to sink us to the bottom of the ocean, don't they realize that they're also going down with the ship?

    April 6, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  25. Tom

    I'm usually the first to criticize Obama for his screw-ups, but even I think this is a load of bull. Unless she was offended by the remark, there is nothing wrong here. So tell me please, is no one allowed to tell anyone in the world that they look nice anymore?

    April 6, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
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