He may have thought it a throwaway remark, but President Barack Obama’s decision to call California’s top law enforcement officer “the best-looking attorney-general in the country” has instead proved to be the political equivalent of a boomerang.
His comments about Kamala Harris last week refuse to go away – on Friday he was forced to apologise following allegations of sexism, and over the weekend the story was in the news again, only this time thanks to supporters claiming the furore was overblown. The President will surely be keen to get back to his desk this morning in a bid to move the debate on to something else.
Mr Obama made the comment at a Democratic fundraising lunch in Atherton, California, where he described Ms Harris as brilliant, dedicated and tough before drawing attention to her appearance.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the following day Mr Obama had phoned Ms Harris, who campaigned on his behalf in 2008 and 2012, “to apologise for the distraction created by his comments”. The President “did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities. He fully recognises the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance,” he said.
Much of the subsequent criticism came from Mr Obama’s side of the aisle. MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, a staunch supporter of the President, said the remark was “a mistake”. Joan Walsh, a liberal columnist for Salon, said her “stomach turned” at the comments. “I assume he thought he was just paying someone he admires a compliment,” Walsh wrote. “But most women in public life have a complex relationship with their appearance, whether they’re as attractive as Harris or not.” By contrast, Fox News found itself in the rare position of defending the President. Gretchen Carlson, host of Fox and Friends, dismissed the furore, saying: “I wish that we wouldn’t be so completely PC on this issue because it’s true, she’s attractive, so what?”
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former Governor of New Mexico, said: “Maybe I’m a Neanderthal, but I thought the President’s comment was harmless… political correctness has reached a point where it’s out of control.”
The incident was not the first time Mr Obama has been faulted for his attitude towards women. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he apologised after addressing a female reporter as “sweetie”. Yet he also has a history of congratulating male officials on their appearance. In a 2012 speech, he described Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as “a good-looking guy”.
Ms Harris, meanwhile, accepted the President’s apology. Her spokesman, Gil Duran, said: “The Attorney General and the President have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him.” The San Jose Mercury News also unearthed a clip from 2009, in which Ms Harris praised Mr Obama’s appearance, saying, “he looks and he sounds like a million bucks”.