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. cali girl

    Love Love Love Kamala!. That lady rocks! And she is beautiful, on the inside and out.
    Proud to call her my State Attorney General.

    April 5, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  2. PaulCat

    Obama compliments a beautiful woman
    Republicans want to get in every woman's bedroom
    So tell me, what is wrong with this picture?

    April 5, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  3. Al-NY,NY


    I'm sure if George W Bush would have made a remark like this the media would understand that he was just being a nice guy and that it was a compliment.

    "hee hee. hey Dick. Take a look at THAT. I sure wish Laura looked like that.....yee haw"

    April 5, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  4. Robocops

    I thought I was on the Onion for a sec there.... are we really counting this as news nowadays?

    April 5, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  5. Pan3

    Much ado about nothing...

    April 5, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  6. Bob

    Harmless, but should have been left unsaid. The major problem is that if it was a Republican saying it, it would have ended his political career. People are absolute hypocrites about their politics.

    April 5, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  7. Freddo

    Imagine if a Republican had made this comment .. the Dems would be calling for his head on a stick.

    Obama should be receiving no less of a reaction.

    And, for the record, I'm an independent.

    April 5, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  8. TonyInNYC

    I think it's merely a fact. Have you seen the other attorneys general?

    April 5, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  9. JR

    It's a joke. She's the first female CA attorney general. He was knocking on the past "all males club" of the office.

    April 5, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  10. Confused

    why is this any different than people talking about how awesome Mitt Romney's hair was this election?

    April 5, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  11. JPM

    If a Republican had said it the blame stream media would have made it a massive conspiracy to take the focus away from the failed Presidency of Obama. But since it was his majesty it is swept under the carpet.

    April 5, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  12. Michael Schanz

    Let's not get paranoid. If a woman said that about a man we would take it with good humor.

    April 5, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  13. Josh

    I am by no means an Obama fan. But it was just a compliment. The superly over politically correct culture some want is pathetic.

    April 5, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  14. Ralph

    We all know what the reaction would have been if a republican President made that remark. Anything this President Obama says or does is wonderful and makes the world a more lovely place.

    April 5, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  15. Jay

    It is apparent that whatever Pres. Obama says will always generate negative or positive press. In this case, I do not find that his comments were offensive except to those who have nothing better to do than to find fault!! It would be wonderful if everyone (particularly the media) who loves to make noise about the insignificant would do or say something that makes a positive difference in someone's life. In other words, get a life and move on to what's important!!!

    April 5, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  16. Big Tim

    I'm not sure it was that big of a complement, have you seen pics of the other AG's?

    April 5, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  17. timverba

    Maybe not focusing on the positive looks of politicians, I do recall the President quipping that Speaker Boehner was a fellow man of color – but that no one could identify what color. I do not think a week went bye without the press noting the good looks of both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Face it empirically Ms. Harris is good looking. I guess she will have to suffer through the compliments.

    April 5, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  18. w l jones

    Good for the eyed!

    April 5, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  19. Liz

    I don't know alll the other Attorney Gens., but this was an offhand compliment about having brains and beautiy. Let's keep things in perspective and not lose our abilitiy to understand the intent of a comment and compliment. If you don't think she's attractive, fine. I have enough other issues with Obama. This isn't one of them.

    April 5, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  20. Scott

    I think it's harmless; I mean, if we want to pull the double standard card here, anyone remember all the jokes and lines about Obama being a president women could...I'll stop there for the sake of modesty.

    April 5, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  21. Pandamonius

    It was a harmless little jest that had no meaning. That being said, it would have been smarter for him not to say it, as it could be (and has been) easily misconstrued as a negative sound byte.

    April 5, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  22. patrick

    He should make another comment of the same nature asap.

    April 5, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  23. steve frank

    Don't give women compliments on their looks ever. If a non democrat president did this the feminist would be up in arms. Which is why there are no real feminist these days. You have to be a democrat to be considered a women in their eyes. #jenniferflowers # monica # paulajones.

    April 5, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  24. I'm confused

    Instead of crying and complaining when men pay women complements about their physical appearance, why don't feminists just push for women to start publicly complementing men on their physical appearance if their concern is actually "equality"? BECAUSE THEIR CONCERN IS NOT "EQUALITY"!!!!!!! Feminism is all about the misandry of primarily lesbians who are just mad/jealous that they themselves were not born men... There is nothing that men will ever be able to do to make feminists happy because true feminists are primary lesbians who wish that men just didn't exist at all.

    April 5, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  25. Joe

    Two words, "Who cares?!?" Honestly, if the recipient isn't offended why does everyone else?

    April 5, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
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