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. momer

    i would expect to see a story like this on fox news but not CNN!! shame on you for making a dumb story relevant...

    April 6, 2013 08:44 pm at 8:44 pm |
  2. GG

    It's clear that some people open their eyes every morning followed by a criticism of our president! He is the hardest working president in history, focus on that!!!!

    April 6, 2013 08:45 pm at 8:45 pm |
  3. texasjimbob

    If Mitt Romney, or any Republican, had done something like this the media would have had a conniption.

    April 6, 2013 08:47 pm at 8:47 pm |
  4. crystal

    No matter what the president does or says,the republicans will be critical of him. There was no need to apologize, he did nothing wrong

    April 6, 2013 08:49 pm at 8:49 pm |
  5. Peter Trunk

    The political over-correctness has made our country a sad joke in the eyes of many.

    April 6, 2013 08:55 pm at 8:55 pm |
  6. Prez#1

    He said what any Honest person would that has been friends for years. Spoke of her mind and looks.what he said was fine.

    April 6, 2013 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  7. you should know

    Whoever thinks it was wrong he complements someone in public a woman no less, is ridiculous. Take it Your what it's worth. He said something nice. Don't give the guy a hard time.

    April 6, 2013 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  8. Ernie Ray

    It is this simple: sexual discrimination is anything women want it to be.

    April 6, 2013 09:28 pm at 9:28 pm |
  9. Dan

    I've never been an Obama fan, but the response to his comment is ridiculous. I feel sorry for people who want to make a sideshow over things like this while ignoring real problems that need real solutions.

    April 6, 2013 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  10. eric

    It was sexist.

    April 6, 2013 09:40 pm at 9:40 pm |
  11. Daniel Maye

    Please tell me. Is it a crime to say to a woman "You are so beautiful" or to a man "You are so handsome"?

    April 6, 2013 09:55 pm at 9:55 pm |
  12. Jonathan

    Today, this is how the president apologized, "Sorry for calling you beautiful, I take the comment back...?"

    April 6, 2013 10:35 pm at 10:35 pm |
  13. rgray

    Apologising for what in heck`s name..As every good looking woman knows-it just does`t happen. A lot of time and effort goes into looking good and President Obama obviously appreciates the end result!!Wish there were more around like him to appreciate us `good lookers`-who don`t just roll out of bed andd expect he world to accept us for better and mostly worse.Keep up the good work Mr President!!

    April 6, 2013 11:39 pm at 11:39 pm |
  14. Jerry

    Even though I believe Obama is pretty much an idiot I fail to see anything wrong with his comment. Only an idiot would find it offensive or inappropriate, (well, only a bigger idiot than Mr. Obama, I mean).

    April 6, 2013 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  15. Spgfld Tom

    Can you imagine if a Republican President had made that remark? Impeachment? Rioting in the streets? Congressional hearings? The View ladies storming the White House?

    April 6, 2013 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  16. Hoosier Repub

    I'm is a conservative Republican, who thinks that he was just paying her a compliment. Forget about such Mickey Mouse stuff and get to solving our real problems!

    April 6, 2013 11:55 pm at 11:55 pm |
  17. Bob

    Finally I agree with something Obama said.

    April 7, 2013 12:03 am at 12:03 am |
  18. Smadar

    It's getting somewhat silly these days. People make mistakes all the time speaking and saying things which are politically incorrect or they get somewhat flustered and say stuff they didn't really want to say. I believe both the President and First Lady have done so this past week a few times, and everyone is reading too much into things that are less important than what's happening around the country and the world. It's somewhat creating a news item when there's no news item.

    April 7, 2013 12:09 am at 12:09 am |
  19. Don Claybrook, Sr.

    The Republicans are pitiful. They have nothing else to do or say; so, they try to hammer the president for complimenting an Attorney General. By the way, his assessment is spot on. And, she's a great A.G.

    April 7, 2013 12:15 am at 12:15 am |
  20. Needz

    whats wrong in praising a beautiful lady ??

    April 7, 2013 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  21. altee11

    Isn't it puritanical to pretend people are not attractive?
    Isn't it puritanical not to comment on this sometimes?
    Isn't it sexist for everyone to ignore President Obama's comments about her toughness and competence?

    April 7, 2013 12:27 am at 12:27 am |

    It's a compliment for Kamala Harris, but it's insulting for Janet Reno, that's why it's offensive.

    April 7, 2013 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  23. Jeff

    Had this comment been made during a casual conversation it wouldn't be an issue. He said it while talking about this person's attributes. He didn't use his noggin as usual.

    April 7, 2013 12:37 am at 12:37 am |
  24. Name Lawerence

    Fact is she IS good looking. Now as far a women in politics goes, she is pretty darn hot. I guess the President is not aloud to think anybody is attrative other than his wife.

    April 7, 2013 12:46 am at 12:46 am |
  25. Al

    The reaction to his comment is stupid, but I do so enjoy when a liberal gets bit in the rear by the insane atmosphere of political correctness they've cultivated.

    April 7, 2013 12:55 am at 12:55 am |
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