President Obama's description of California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris as "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country" at a public appearance has divided even some of his strongest supporters.
Some found the comment sexist, others harmless.
On Friday, the president apologized for the remark. "He called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
The president “did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities. He fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance,” Carney added.
Harris has not commented. But, according to the Times' PolitiCal blog, her communications director, Gil Duran, issued a statement saying "the attorney general and the president have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him."
Willie Brown, the former head of the California Assembly, said critics are wrongly jumping on the comment.
“They can’t criticize him for budget, they can’t criticize him for taxes on the rich, they can’t criticize him for medical care, they got to say something,” he told CBS News.
Liberal columnist Joan Walsh said her "stomach turned" when she heard the remark.
"I doubt Obama knew any of the lurid history of Harris’s opponents smear attempts," she wrote. "I assume he thought he was just paying someone he admires a compliment. But most women in public life have a complex relationship with their appearance, whether they’re as attractive as Harris or not."
The Times' Robin Abcarian weighed in on the controversy Thursday, saying: "Does merely stating the obvious make the president sexist? More wolfish than sexist, I’d say. And this may be a little problem he needs to work on .... Obama got into some hot water a while back when he addressed a reporter as 'sweetie.' That was obnoxious, and demeaning, and Obama rightfully apologized. In 2008, he told Hillary Clinton she was 'likable enough' during one of the primary debates, which turned off God knows how many women, who heard the smug judgment of an arrogant upstart.' "
The controversy began Thursday when Obama was at a California fundraiser. Here are the remarks:
"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.
“She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country -- Kamala Harris is here. [Applause.] It's true. Come on. [Laughter] And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”