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. John

    If only Sheila Jackson Lee would comment about some handsome Congressman, we might get past this nonsense.

    April 6, 2013 06:21 pm at 6:21 pm |
  2. Cw

    People should stop making big deals about things like this. President Obama was simply giving the atorney general a compliment nothing more. He also addressed her intelligence. Thats his friend.

    April 6, 2013 06:21 pm at 6:21 pm |
  3. scooterdie2

    come on people, it was sexist, it was not intentionally meant to hurt or offend, and he has said said sorry. Compared to the thousands of US citizens killed by George W. and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed by him, THIS IS NOTHING. Let it go people.

    April 6, 2013 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  4. susanne

    I don't think it was sexist AT ALL. What's wrong with a man giving a woman a compliment on her looks. She is a good friend of his anyway so it would not be taken the wrong way. Some people have no lives and find fault with whatever Barack does. It's ridiculous. They need to get over it.

    April 6, 2013 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  5. Mike

    The President only stated the obvious. Can't say the same for his critics, but a least the President has a touch of class and grace ... and friends. Recall Mr. Pitts on Seinfeld when he told Elaine that you either have grace or you don't.

    Obama has a grace and class. His critics, who do not, might pay some attention in class!

    April 6, 2013 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  6. Name

    Who the heck cares? This is a non story, and sites like this are one of many reasons this world is becoming increasingly less worth living in. Good job, morons.

    April 6, 2013 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  7. Symphony Of Madness

    This is ridiculous! It's a compliment!

    April 6, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  8. Robert

    OMG!!!!!, people get over it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you act llike he said some four letter word of the worst kind

    April 6, 2013 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    The president gave a compliment that was polite, he didn't say she has a great ass!!! If she was elected for the job is because of her merits not for her looks.

    April 6, 2013 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  10. Emma

    He said it like it is. A compliment to a beautiful, capable woman.

    April 6, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  11. Jonus Grumby

    While I'm certainly no fan of Obama, I didn't sense any harm in the comment. Cut him some slack.

    April 6, 2013 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  12. Orionwy

    and yet last week I think a guy called a senator Passionate on her stance and everyone got there panties is a up roar

    April 6, 2013 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  13. dan

    He is married thats whats wrong with it! Maybe some more time with his wife would make her feel less of a single mom! He should try walking out the door and holding his wife not his daughter. Show some love at home!

    April 6, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  14. tm

    Sexual Harassment No-no #1: don't comment on a person's looks. It turns that person into an object to be looked at rather than a mind to engage with. If a University president said that about a faculty member, it would be a total embarrassment.

    April 6, 2013 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  15. Susan

    Was it sexist to comment on her appearance? Yes. Yet lets remember this isn't a "binders full of women" level of sexism. This is a compliment which revealed the president judged a person on their appearance. He was correct to apologize and we are correct to move on.

    April 6, 2013 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  16. Mo

    Michelle Obama has forgiven him and that's what is important!

    April 6, 2013 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
  17. Mancer Meezer

    So the media/dems can lambast Romney for weeks over the "binders full of women" comment yet this is supposed to slide under the rug? Two-faced?

    April 6, 2013 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  18. Leo

    We live in a world where it is bad to give a harmless compliment to women but completely acceptable when a world religion is defamed, branded, slurred and attacked.

    April 6, 2013 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  19. beezer

    Of course he did something wrong – why else would he apologize? His comment is a slam at anyone who isn't "beautiful/handsome" in the traditional sense – not quite qualified for the job.

    April 6, 2013 08:11 pm at 8:11 pm |
  20. smdahl

    Yes, Eric Holder is Barack's true sweetheart...I hope he understands the Kamala complement is a decoy to protect the POTUS' closeting.

    April 6, 2013 08:18 pm at 8:18 pm |
  21. Larry Pulley

    If a Republican had said something similar that what President O'blamo' had said, the 'Lame' stream Media would have had their Panties in a 'WAD'

    April 6, 2013 08:19 pm at 8:19 pm |
  22. jon

    More whining from the right, I mean wrong side.

    April 6, 2013 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  23. norma jean

    Considering that most of the Attorney Generals are male....what's wrong with saying the newest....a woman... is the best looking ???

    April 6, 2013 08:25 pm at 8:25 pm |
  24. yes or not

    Well, I guess when North Korea jump off with one of those missiles, we will get back to real issues.

    April 6, 2013 08:42 pm at 8:42 pm |
  25. L.C.F.

    ENOUGH ALREADY!!! Some people will run with the silliest things. What is wrong with giving anyone a compliment, he's human, not a freakin robot people, stop hating already...

    April 6, 2013 08:42 pm at 8:42 pm |
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