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. Dave

    It was a compliment, and people that do not see it that way are probably on the "less than attractive side" if you know what I mean. There is nothing wrong from telling somebody they are attractive...I tell my wife all the time and get an "aw, aren't you sweet for saying that." These people that are complaining are probably used to others turning their heads the other way and not starring. It's not like he said "hey, look at the knockers on that attorney general."

    April 5, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  2. Dominican mama 4 Obama


    Perhaps a compliment to her, but what about the other seven female attorney generals in the U.S. that he just called out for being hideous trolls
    Oh please!!
    "If you're ugly and you know it clap your hands! If you're ugly and you know it clap your hands!"
    Nobody should have to tell you what your mirror already knows.
    The President called no one ugly. Ms Kamala could be the BEST looking amongst a sea of other good-looking women, ever see it that way?
    And speaking of good-looking: The GOP finally got a looker in Sarah Palin. They all went gaga over her. They flaunted her looks aaaaand......SHE SUNK THEIR BATTLESHIP!!!

    April 5, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  3. Graham Smith

    He said she was brilliant, dedicated, tough. He also said she happens to be good-looking. That assessment is fourth on his list.....this is a non-issue.

    April 5, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  4. Woman of the 1960s

    What is wrong with you people? When did it become unacceptable for a gentleman to pay a lady a compliment? He's merely saying that compared to all the male attorneys general (most are males, you know), this woman is by far the prettiest one. If a president of the United States ever complimented me, you can bet I'd hold that compliment in my heart for life and take it all the way to heaven with me someday when I'm an old woman! To be paid a compliment by a U.S. President would be a real honor! (Maybe all of you are just jealous).

    April 5, 2013 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  5. Person of Interest

    Women wonder why men don't pay them compliments anymore. I told one of my co-workers I liked her new haircut because it brought out her eyes. This was a true story. Next thing I know, I hear about how I was being inappropriate and hitting on her. When I asked her about it, she said didn't think I was and in fact she was happy all day long that at least one man noticed it. A few weeks later was our Xmas party and she complimented my girlfriend about how sweet I am and notice things like that. My girlfriend agreed.

    He didn't say she had a nice butt, that she was Phat, or look at those..... He said she is beautiful. Everywomen deserves to hear that, whether it's true or not.

    April 5, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  6. Jeff

    An easy check I ask my employees to make on themselves in the workplace...

    Would you make the same comment to a member of your gender? If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn't make it to anyone.

    April 5, 2013 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  7. Bill Tippit Jr.

    I am a conservative, so I do not support a lot of his policies. If you want to attack his policies, economic beliefs, and foreign policy. I am with you 100%. Attcking him for this is ridiculous. I am also tired of hearing him called a foreigner, a muslim, and the anti christ. Let us call him what he is, wrong on a lot of issues and a bad leader. Leave this stupid stuff alone. Enough already. It did not win us any elections.

    April 5, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  8. semper fi

    Well ladies no more compliments and open doors....or Gentlemen paying you a simple compliment without fear of repercussions....you have achieved your goals of shutting us down.

    April 5, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  9. Tom Arnold

    What??? The Messiah being criticized by mainstream media??? Can MSNBC be far behind or can this bring down the Campaigner in Chief?

    April 5, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  10. shosana

    Well if FLOTUS did not mind why do we. But she did say she was a "single mother" recently.... Hmmmm

    April 5, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  11. DEF

    The President did not minimize the AG accomplishments, he paid her a compliment in addition to stating how she is ""She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general," Obama said, according to the report.

    I think some people are missing the message.

    April 5, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  12. STEFFY

    You got to be kinding, with all that is going on..Korea..Budgets..School Funding......and you all wanna condemn a man for saying a woman is beautiful...........come on people.....get in the REAL world............

    April 5, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  13. vbscript2

    Come on, people. I'm quite conservative and wouldn't dream of voting for Obama, but this was just a joking compliment to a friend. Obama has said and done a lot of things that are real causes for concern. This isn't one of them. Complimenting the appearance of a friend is probably the least offensive thing Obama has done since he first started campaigning. This is even more ridiculous than the people complaining about Obama taking his wife on a date or a vacation.

    April 5, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  14. Bill T

    The President covered all basis in a professional manner.... and what he said was appropriate.....

    "She's brilliant (professional comment) and she's dedicated (professional comment), she's tough (Professional comment)… She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general (professional/personal observation comment)," Obama said, according to the report.

    April 5, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  15. EVN

    Americans are just tripping all over themselves with idiotic political correctness. It's hilarious and pathetic at the same time.

    It is also often hypocritical, as when blacks are free to use the "n" word like there is no tomorrow, but should a white use it, the instant affronts abound. It's either unacceptable regardless of who is using the word, or it's hypocrisy.

    April 5, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  16. MicroDrJ

    If Obama would say that any male he had ever appointed was the best looking or even good looking, then it would be appropriate. He hasn't. I find it inappropriate because her looks should have no bearing on her performance or her appointment.

    April 5, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  17. Grant

    A COMPLIMENT people get real already.....stop being so damn judge mental and see it for what is was ....LORD help these people of stupidity..........lol

    April 5, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  18. Obama To Do List

    Get eyes checked.
    Stop taking speech lessons from Joe Biden.

    April 5, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  19. Tash

    ONLY UGLY WOMEN are offended by this, because no one pays them a compliment

    April 5, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  20. TonyD

    Like a Seinfeld episode... Much ado about nothing. Political correctness is one thing, asking for the "Kool-Aid" receipt with every comment is something else.

    April 5, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  21. dave

    Hey, it is not a story if a dog bites a man, but man bites dog is a big story.

    An attractive woman coming out of a law school is a big deal

    April 5, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  22. Female Trailblazer

    Not worth discussion BUT if a Republican elected official would've said this, the uproar would've been deafening. A total double standard.

    April 5, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  23. Commentor

    The comment is OK since he's liberal. He should have added that she has a good booty and a nice rack too. I guess when you want to bang someone you hide it in plain site...huh POTUS?

    April 5, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  24. Jim in PA

    Well I just googled her, and I would have to concur. Give the man credit for taste.

    April 5, 2013 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  25. Patrick

    I remember people calling Scott Brown "hunky" and the best looking Senator. Nobody complained about that. This is just a manufactured distraction, based on a double standard. Lighten up Francis!

    April 5, 2013 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
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