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. Marcus Takatoa

    I'm no Obama fan, but this is silly. It would be different if he whispered it in her ear after pulling her into a closet or something. We've evolved as a society that cannot even make or take compliments.

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

    Damn! She IS pretty. Gotta give credit where credit is due. Sorry folks, Obama got it right with that compliment.

    April 5, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  3. bluejeans

    He needs to focus on running this country.

    April 5, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  4. livingston

    If you have never complimented a friend on their appearance – well, I feel sorry for you because it means you have never had a friend. I guess that is why the GOP and it's base are upset about it. They just don't get it.

    April 5, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  5. SlackMeyer

    If the president had an 'R' after his name, every Liberal in this country and every Liberal on CNN would be calling for him to be strung up...

    April 5, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  6. cinnreds

    e does this kind of thing a lot ....remember his Special Olympics remark a few years back

    April 5, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  7. ShingoEX

    Only in today's pussified butthurt society can the the words "best looking" be described as "disrespectful" and "inappropriate". This is outright stupid. Complimenting people is now a bad thing. I am ashamed.

    April 5, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  8. buffalo

    Yes, it would have been much more appropriate if he had gone over and perhaps, rubbed her shoulders for her. Kind of like what the Moron of the United States, George W. Bush did for the German chancellor. Since when is it a crime to tell someone they are "good looking"?

    April 5, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  9. yo!

    Black is beautiful!

    April 5, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  10. Balls of Steel

    Our president felt the need to apologize to someone. Well at least he did not apologize to little fat boy Un.

    April 5, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  11. Balls of Steel

    Our president felt the need to apologize to someone. Well at least he did not apologize to little f@t boy Un

    April 5, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  12. ronjayaz

    Well, we havent had a woman president yet. What if we did & she slipped and sed, "Our next secretary state is a really yummy guy!"

    April 5, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  13. DonRoberto

    The fact that President Obama was talking about an Attorney General, and not a secretary, before a mixed crowd, and not a group of good old boys, should have signaled to everyone that the President's remark was well within the arena of politcal correctness expected in 2013. We all long for the day that women (and everyone else, for that matter) are routinely judged only on their merit, but it does no disservice to the ideal to recognize that day is not yet fully here.

    April 5, 2013 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  14. freedom

    It's about time he's being called out on ANYTHING! When is he going to be brought before a Grand Jury for the Benghazi cover-up?

    April 5, 2013 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  15. CalDude

    Michelle, what say you?

    April 5, 2013 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  16. Dean

    Typical black man. 70% of black children are born out of wedlock. What makes anyone think that Obama is any different?

    April 5, 2013 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  17. Lisa W

    He also insulted women and other attorneys General who are NOT so 'beautiful. Let's leave the looks comments where they belong, out of politics.

    April 5, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    There must be some ugly AGs out there...

    April 5, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |

    People are making a mountain out of a molehill! Get a life and leave BO alone. I am 100% sure KH LOVED the compliment from her FRIEND! so we should all butt out of it. if anyone has the right to have an issue it should be MO and I don't see her commenting. BO can window shop all he wants!!!!!

    April 5, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  20. dnokc

    He flies his true colors! Chauvinist Pig!

    April 5, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  21. JonfromLI

    "I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow..." WHY IS THIS NEWS? The President isn't allowed to have a personality as he might say something that's immediately taken out of context by none other than the Ultra PC liberals who got him elected in the first place. We need our President to be a robot.

    April 5, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  22. roger

    He complimented her on the job she was doing AND said she was good looking to boot. What is wrong with that? Now if he said the only reason she's a AG is because of her looks he would be in the wrong. I with you frikin liberals would get over your political correctness. You people are afraid to say the truth because you're afraid that it won't be PC. Ever notice how the word LIE and LIAR aren't said in Washington even if the person they're talking about did lie or is a liar? See, that would be PC so it isn't said.

    April 5, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  23. Yvonne Edelman

    Much ado about nothing. Yes the GOP did make comments about "their candidates being the Hottest! and nothing was made of that inappropriate remark! Too many important things out there people – get a life!

    April 5, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  24. Scott

    Plenty, and I mean PLENTY of reasons to dislike and hold Obama accountable, but this is not one.
    Though, if this had been a republican, it would have been the lead news story for 2 days on every network and cable new show and not a couple tweets and 1 story.

    April 5, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  25. Pete

    Women need 3 things to live. Food, water and compliments.

    April 5, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
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