By Kevin Liptak, CNN
(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, but a print pool reporter noted the president’s remark.
“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.
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.
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.
“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 Chiat 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.
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.