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President Obama: When making nice can be naughty

President Obama arrives at San Francisco International Airport and is greeted by California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. The president was at an Atherton fundraiser when he joked about Harris as the nation's "best-looking" attorney general.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Does it matter that President Obama was right? That Kamala Harris is “the best-looking attorney general in the country”?

Not really. As a quip, it failed; as an attempt at gallantry, it didn’t need saying.

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The president cushioned his remarks at a fundraiser in Atherton thusly: “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.”

I am sure Harris handled it gracefully, but that is not the point.

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My colleague Robin Abcarian noted that Obama’s comment tipped more toward the wolfish than the sexist, and was meant as a compliment, not an insult. But how many times have women squirmed as they’ve had to listen to men make remarks like this, clumsy efforts at a compliment that wind up sounding embarrassing and even demeaning?

If John McCain had said that his running mate, Sarah Palin, would soon be “the best looking vice president of the United States,” it would have undercut some of the ostensible reasons for her being on the ticket. (Anyway, I think Vice President Thomas Jefferson was higher up on the hottie meter.)

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During the 2008 campaign, Obama got himself into hot water by referring to a female reporter as “sweetie.” He may not have meant it condescendingly or dismissively, but that’s how it came across.

Insults can actually be easier to handle than these ham-handed compliments. An insult can be challenged head-on. But a woman who tries to fend off an inapt compliment – “I’m glad you think I have pretty legs but we’re here to consider about your repeated and flagrant violations of the tax code.” -- risks being critiqued as humorless, and more graceless than the man who made the remark.

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There’s a notorious exchange between the half-American British statesman Winston Churchill and the entirely American Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament:

“Winston, if I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee.”

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“Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Now that’s a reasonable cut-and-thrust political moment, an equal-opportunity insult. This next one, whose authenticity is suspect, is not. If it’s true, it’s stupendously sexist:

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“Mr. Churchill, you’re drunk.”

“Yes, madam, I am. But tomorrow, I shall be sober, and you will still be ugly.”

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Hillary Rodham Clinton has endured a lifetime of insults. During the 2008 presidential primary, Obama said, rather dismissively, that she was “likable enough.” In New Hampshire, male hecklers told her to iron their shirts. And at a 2007 McCain campaign event, a woman asked the Republican candidate bluntly, “How do we beat the bitch?” Part of his answer: “Excellent question.”

He later said apologetically that he “made light of the comment,” but he did not make light of a racist question a year later when a woman in a town hall declared that she couldn’t trust Obama, that he was “an Arab.” McCain took back the microphone, shook his head and contradicted her.

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For women in politics and public life, these remarks can wallop a campaign.

The early 1960s were hardly an era of enlightenment for women. A 1961 Supreme Court case allowed women to be excused from jury duty just because they were women and shouldn’t be exposed to “the filth, obscenity, and obnoxious atmosphere ... of the courtroom.”

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Still, it was eye-opening to read about the patronizing way President Kennedy handled at least one female reporter at a White House news conference.

In November 1961, White House reporter May Craig – who had covered the Normandy invasion – asked:

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“The Democratic platform in which you ran for election promises to work for equal rights for women, including equal pay, and to wipe out job opportunity discriminations. Now you have made efforts on behalf of others. What have you done for the women, according to the promises of the platform?”

JFK: Well, I’m sure we haven’t done enough. [Laughter] I must say I am a strong believer in equal pay for equal work, and I think that we ought to do better than we’re doing, and I’m glad that you reminded me of it, Mrs. Craig [laughter].

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(To another question about other campaign promises, including ending racial discrimination in housing, there had been no “laughter” and the resident delivered a sober answer.)

About 20 years earlier, Craig had been at an FDR news conference a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, and here’s how that went in part:

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Craig: You’ve got a new [White House security] system out there.

FDR: What?

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Craig: A new system out there. It’s going to take a long time to get in.

FDR: What’s that? What do you have to do? Have they frisked you? (Laughter.)

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Craig: Practically.

FDR: Now May, I don’t think that’s nice.

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Craig: They did [Maine Republican senator] Fred Hale once.

FDR: I will have to hire a female Secret Service agent around here to do the frisking.

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FDR: Well, the only thing I can think of is — on that — you know occasionally I have a few people in to dinner, and generally in the middle of dinner some — I know she isn’t — it isn’t an individual, it’s just a generic term — some “sweet young thing” says, “Mr. President, couldn’t you tell us about so and so?” Well, the other night this “sweet young thing” in the middle of supper said, “Mr. President, couldn’t you tell us about the bombing? Where did those planes start from and go to?” And I said, “Yes. I think the time has now come to tell you. They came from our new secret base at Shangri-La!” (Laughter) And she believed it! (More laughter)

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Q: Mr. President, is this the same young lady you talked about? (Loud laughter interrupted.)

FDR: No. This is a generic term. It happens to be a woman.

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Craig: Is it always feminine? (Laughter.)

FDR: What?

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Craig: Is it always feminine? (Laughter.)

FDR: Now May, why did you ask me that?

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Craig: I wondered.

FDR: I call it a “sweet young thing.” Now when I talk about manpower, that includes the women, and when I talk about a “sweet young thing,” that includes young men. (Laughter.)

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Paging May Craig …

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