April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
10 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. digger

    I am definitely not an Obama fan, but the way people jumped on the bandwagon against him over this is pathetic.

    April 6, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  2. Rhiannon

    Seriously people. She is very beautiful as well as smart, accomplished, etc... This is not news. This is a distraction from the really important issues. The President shouldn't have to apologize for complimenting her.

    April 6, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  3. Peregrine

    The president was giving her a light hearted compliment. It has been a long time since anyone told me I am attractive and I think this young lady should be delighted with the compliment. It must have been a slow news day. Focus on the Korean problem, jobs, economy, etc. items that are really important.

    April 6, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  4. dalewalk

    Obama has made very similar remarks towards others, many of them men, in public. Fat rush would have simply called her a femi-Nazi without any compliements at all. That's one of the key differences between GOP and Demo and why the Repubics lost the election. Crass vs. class.

    April 6, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  5. ScottCA

    The President made a simple compliment much like he did about the Mohawk guy in NASA. Take it at face value, its just a compliment nothing else. No wrong was done. She should just throw it back at the president and say the same about him. They are both pretty good looking people for their age.

    April 6, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  6. david shoup

    She looks attractive to me. Very easy on the eyes.

    April 6, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  7. Michael P. McCracken

    Obama should apologize for surviving birth, wherever it may have happened.

    April 6, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  8. Mom In Kalamazoo

    It was a condescending remark that would never be made about a man, and it was insulting to all the a.g.s. On the other hand, Obama isn't attracted to women. He is our first gay president. Search for Obama and Reggie Love for more information on that.

    April 6, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  9. Noel

    People need to take a chill pill. Why are we so sensitive when the person to which the remark is made is soaking it up as the sum total of her true being. Good grief, the man only spoke the truth in a honest and complimentary manner and he's gonna get flack for that? seriously? So what, we can no longer compliment a woman on her beauty in addition to her intellect and professional achievements? I bet if Michelle had said that about her then it would have been okay? because I have been to enough business functions to hear women being introduced as beautiful and smart. So what's the problem?

    April 6, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  10. canadian observer

    I cant believe they took my comment down because I said Obama has no valid birth certificate it was on cbs news a day or two before they so conveniently found Osama Bin Laden. If You are going to take a comment down that's true cnn at least give an explanation. What are you afraid of sooner or later everyone is going to know that Obama is not a US citizen the question is will the American public stand up and put him out!

    April 6, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  11. Bob Ross

    This is a non-story. Why bother to even print it?

    April 6, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  12. katmicjus

    Not even sure why he bent to these folks and apologized... Oh Wait, the Prez has got 'Game", another reason to talk to her. Better not let Michelle find out....lol

    This whole "controversy is STUPID.

    April 6, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  13. charles Gannon

    PC my backside – oh, have I offended you – good !

    April 6, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  14. dmscottw

    I am not an Obama fan, and much more conservative than liberal, but I find this ridiculous. When Republicans make comments like this the liberal press blows it out of proportion, and the same when a Democrat makes comments, the conservative press blows it up. PC has had it's run, and is in truth infringing free speech. Did the President say anything that was untrue? From what I have seen, she is a very attractive lady. And people, lighten up, he was making a joke. So while I have been critical of the President in the past, I am on his side here, unless the AG felt belittled or humiliated and asked for an apology, one should not have been required.

    As for women being judged by there looks instead of the accomplishments, he spoke of her positive attributes that uphold her position first. Also there are many women that are perhaps not so attractive that have held high positions in the corporate world, as well as in the political realm. To me this is an increasing non-issue, and am thankful for it. Unfortunately there are those that will continue to rattle this sabre until the end of the world.

    April 6, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  15. DC1973

    If she wasn't offended, then why are other people getting offended on her behalf?

    She's a grown woman. The comment was directed at her. If she had no problem with the compliment, then let it go.

    April 6, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  16. a famous brony

    If it was a good looking young male, i can see obama saying that and nobody freaking out. It's probably because it IS something women have been upset about... how they are defined by looks and not skill.... makes sense. Obama is just doing damage control
    More likely the damage control is for Michelle and not the feminists. AMIRIGHT? *audience laughs

    April 6, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  17. luke,az

    It's nothing wrong with President Obama giving her a compliment. I know she was happy to hear that from her President. He has said that to other appointees in his CABINET and no one made a big stink about it. Is it that she is an accomplished African American female and the media wants to make something out of nothing? Plus she is the only African American female that is an Attorney General – so she is one of the best looking Attorney General.

    April 6, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    If that comment had come out of the mouth of a conservative all heck would have broken loose. Liberal hypocrites.

    April 6, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  19. P G Williams

    The earth belongs to God (Psalm 24: 1; 33: 6,9). The Government is on His Shoulder"from henceforth even for ever –
    (Isaiah 9: 6-7). When His Children refuse to obey His commandments He sends wicked nations against them –
    Assyria (Isaiah 10: 5)Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1: 6)Babylon (Jeremiah 20: 4). If you continue to disobey His orders
    Genesis 2: 24 , Ephesians 5: 30-32 "A GREAT MYSTERY" don't be surprised If your flogging comes from North Korea

    April 6, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  20. jas495

    You cant say a freaking thing anymore without someone complaining about it. Good Lord, why cant this country relax. I am so sick of everyone getting fired or degraded because they said what was on their minds. What in the hell is wrong with everyone. Breathe!!!

    April 6, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  21. krystenco


    April 6, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  22. scranton

    Thank you liberals for making everything so Politically correct. Had Mitt Romney said this the Huffington Post would of went into a grand mal seizure.

    April 6, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  23. Blue

    President Obama is so nice, and wants others to feel important and if you look great, why not say so?

    April 6, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  24. jschmidt

    Liberals are hypocrites if they think this is OK. THe PC policies must only apply to conservatives. Obama helped create this ridiculous PC world so he should tow the line like everyone else.

    April 6, 2013 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  25. NorCalMojo

    I think it's faux outrage and don't like it. Whether or not I like it doesn't matter much, it's part of our political landscape.

    The apology is interesting as a political bell weather. It shows republicans are gaining among women. A few years ago they wouldn't be able to pull this off. Obama would have just ignored it like Clinton did and it would fizzle out. Democrat's hold on the womens vote was a lot stronger then.

    The DNC attacks on Hillary in the primary and then Palin, Bachman, Whitman and Brewer are adding up. Some of the rhetoric was pretty ugly and blatantly mysoginistic. A lot of women are starting to see that RNC aren't the only party with chauvenistic good ol' boys.

    April 6, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
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