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. Tired of This

    So he can't tell a woman she is beautiful...WOW. Maybe he should have said Beau was handsome then we would get the whole POTUS in the closet story. LOL you people are beyond ridiculous.

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

    He didn't focus on her looks. It was obviously meant as a humorous remark AFTER he complimented her intelligence and skill. That they have been friends for years reinforces that it was meant in fun.

    So the POTUS has a sense of humor, get over it.

    April 5, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  3. masterochi

    My wife and daughter were far less offended by the President's compliment than by the recent anti-female-choice activities of the Republican party in dozens of states.

    The Republican's crocodile tears over this imagined offense is a facade for their nationwide attempt at supressing women's rights and women's votes. The real outrage is Republicans using gerrymandered districts to ursup control over the House of Representatives.

    More Americans voted for a Democratic Congress than voted for a Republican Congress. Yet, because of state's manipulating the district lines, Republican voting areas get far more representation than the simple voting majorities could ever account for.

    Want a better economy? Want better treatment of women and minorities? Get rid of Republicans at every level of government. They lie to get in office than screw the electorate while linging the pockets of their supporters.

    It is Bribery.

    April 5, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  4. db

    If you're a lib who sees nothing inappropriate with the President's remark, ask yourself how you'd feel if it had been made by a Republican – and try to answer truthfully.

    April 5, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  5. Jeb

    It was a compliment. Get over it and move on with your life people.

    April 5, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  6. Larry L

    Maybe the Republicans in the House should vote for impeachment! Reform the Starr Commission! Appoint a Special Prosecutor! This is the most grievous scandal since Clinton's 91 million dollar BJ! I feel so dirty!

    North Korea is trying to start a nuclear war, our government is operating under a sequester (killing our recovery), and we waste time on a harmless and innocent compliment? Republicans need to stop obstructing all progress and get serious about being patriotic Americans. Passive terrorism is not helping America!

    April 5, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  7. STan

    This is a total non – issue. A simple compliment , in line after tough, brilliant and decicated. What is happening to us?
    Guys, don'r ever expect a compliment, handsome, athletic. Guess thes will be considered condisending.

    April 5, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  8. Ty

    People! The problem with the presidents comment is not that he said the Attorney General was pretty (which she is) but that he said she looked better than everyone else. And then challenged anyone who disagreed with him.

    April 5, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  9. Fedora

    Can't see WHY this is even a big thing. It was obviously a compliment - made at a dinner in front of a room full of people - and they are friends. Geesh - don't people have anything else to do with their lives?

    April 5, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  10. Shalomit

    When Obama was elected the first time, I heard countless news people say that he wouldn't have been elected if he wasn't so good looking. That does not mean he's not competent as his comment did not take away from the AG's abilities for doing her job. The compliment was only a part of that sentence.

    I think too many people are looking for ways to stir things up.. Maybe if people learned to TALK TO EACH OTHER we wouldn't be on the verge of war w/ half the world.

    We all say things we regret, or that are overheard by people who we didn't know were there – or there are always the open mike problems. We have freedom of speech (or I think we still do) and it's time to stop spending so much time on dreck and move on to putting the country back together.

    Why don't those who are looking for arguments re-route their anger and help rebuild the thousands of homes people lost in a number of super-storms.?

    April 5, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  11. Getoverit

    If you’re a lib who sees nothing inappropriate with the President’s remark, ask yourself how you’d feel if it had been made by a Republican – and try to answer truthfully.
    They would be screaming and stamping their little feet, demanding a public hanging.

    April 5, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  12. Obama Gone Wild

    Hey Baby, you be lookin' mighty fine in black leather. How about you come sit on Daddy Barack's lap and talk dirty law to me? You can my General and I can be your Commander-in-Chief if you know what I'm talkin' about Sweet Cheeks.

    April 5, 2013 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  13. heywood

    Saying something like this in a corporate environment could get you fired, but i really think there are a few more pressing news stories to write about. I remember when cnn covered news. i miss the old days.

    April 5, 2013 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  14. chester Davis

    I find nothing wrong with what he said , he gave her a compliment that all

    April 5, 2013 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  15. phazed

    Ahahaha! Better watch your back Michelle!

    April 5, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  16. Randy, San Francisco

    Stupid mistake. President Obama probably received an earful from Michelle.

    April 5, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  17. Patrick in Wisconsin

    This is absolutely ridiculous. This kinda crap belongs in the tabloid section... on second thought, it doesn't because this isn't newsworthy!

    April 5, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  18. Kenman

    Just goes to show why Obama so rarely goes off-teleprompter, because when someone's not telling him what eloquent things to say he often steps in it!

    Here, of course, like so many rich donor events for Democrats, no cameras were allowed to show how he hobnobs with the "evil" rich!

    April 5, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  19. josh rogen

    he's flirting, she's referring to herself as a single mom, separate vacations, hmmm?

    April 5, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  20. Fact Check

    The President paid three career related complements and THEN said “best looking”. He didn’t say beautiful, pretty, or attractive. He said Best looking! For anyone to look into what the President meant, or to imply that everyone knows what he meant simply because the person he was referring to was a woman, is complete conjecture and out of place!

    He said "best looking" which could mean those things (beautiful, attractive, etc.) but in fact it could also mean, best looking attire, best looking as in reflection of hygiene or best looking in terms of demeanor.

    Illiterate and uneducated people need to sit back and read an English composition book to understand what words mean when put together to form phrases and such. Do this instead of trying to get implications out of situations that are far above Illiterate and uneducated peoples level of understandability.

    April 5, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  21. john scott

    OH NO ITS A " WAR ON WOMEN" wait a minute its only the Republicans who have a 'WAR ON WOMEN"

    April 5, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  22. Bill

    I'm fine with letting his compliment slide as long as everyone is given the same benefit.

    April 5, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  23. Guy Smiley

    Surprised he noticed since he doesn't seem to like woman all that much and his "wife" let on that she was a single mother and likely a beard.

    April 5, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  24. scranton

    Who cares? See what the politically correct tree hugging liberals have done to this country. Ridiculous.

    April 5, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  25. What??

    I'm glad I don't get so upset when a Democrat, Republican or gosh forbid an Independent person compliments my wife. I didn't realize attractiveness was so different between Democrat's and Republicans. Makes me kind of curious what Republicans find attractive. This just in, Jennifer Aniston is attractive, I hope I don't start an uproar.

    April 5, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
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