WASHINGTON — President Obama called Kamala Harris, the California attorney general, to apologize for saying she was the “best-looking attorney general in the country.”
He made the comment Thursday morning at a fundraiser at the home of Levi Strauss heir John Goldman, outside San Francisco. He praised Harris as being “brilliant,” adding, “she is dedicated and she is tough” before commenting on her looks. “She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country. It’s true! C’mon,” the president told the wealthy donors, who responded with laughter and applause.
Harris had addressed the crowd before the president spoke. There was a quick reaction on social-media sites, with some people accusing Obama of being sexist and others defending his comment as harmless.
The comment revived the debate over whether Obama’s White House is too dominated by men. A day earlier, Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser, called charges that the White House is a “boys club” insulting to high-ranking women in the administration who are playing influential roles.
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The president has worked to add women to his staff, nominating Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Wal-Mart Foundation as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, as the next interior secretary. He also appointed Julia Pierson to lead the Secret Service, the first woman to hold that job.
The president’s aides apparently knew the potential for political damage from the Harris comment. Soon after Air Force One returned Obama from his West Coast fundraising trip, he called Harris and apologized, according to Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
“You know, they are old friends and good friends,” Carney said, “and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities.”
Carney repeatedly remarked on Harris’ abilities, calling her “a remarkably effective leader as attorney general” and “an excellent attorney general” who has “done great work.”
The president, Carney said, “fully recognizes the challenge women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance.”
A spokesman for Harris, Gil Duran, said Friday: “The attorney general and the president have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday, and she strongly supports him.”
While Harris did not seem offended, others were on her behalf. Robin Abcarian wrote on the Los Angeles Times website that the remark was “more wolfish than sexist,” and “may be a little problem he needs to work on.”
Joan Walsh wrote on Salon that “my stomach turned over” when she heard about the comment. “Those of us who’ve fought to make sure that women are seen as more than ornamental — and that includes the president — should know better than to rely on flattering the looks of someone as formidable as Harris,” she said.
Harris, 48, was elected to the statewide office in 2010 after serving two terms as district attorney of San Francisco. She is the first woman to hold the post and the first with African-American and South Asian heritage. Her name has come up as a possible candidate for governor and as a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee if another seat is vacated during Obama’s second term.
Material from The Associated Press, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post is included in this report.