Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, And The Limits Of Propriety
The reaction to President Obama's comments about Kamala Harris raise interesting questions about propriety in the modern world.
As James Joyner noted yesterday, President Obama generated some probably unwanted attention after a speech and a Democratic fundraiser in California during which he referred to California Attorney General Kamala Harris as “the best looking Attorney General” in the country. In addition to some amusing commentary comparing the physical appearances of the nation’s Attorneys General both male and female, the report also generated no small degree of controversy on what was, for the most part, a slow news day. Many commentators, most especially women, contended that Obama’s off-the-cuff remark was offensive to women in general and Attorney General Harris in particular, although there was no indication in the statement she released yesterday that Harris, a long-term friend of Obama’s, had been at all offended by the comment. Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded several questions about the incident at yesterday’s Press Briefing and, by the end of the day, it was announced that the President had called Harris to apologize:
WASHINGTON — President Obama late Thursday night called Kamala Harris, the California attorney general, and apologized to her for telling a group of wealthy donors that she is the “best-looking attorney general in the country.”
Mr. Obama made the comment on Thursday morning at a fund-raiser outside San Francisco. He praised Ms. Harris as being “brilliant,” adding, “she is dedicated and she is tough” before commenting on her looks.
There was a quick reaction on social media sites, with some people accusing Mr. Obama of being sexist and others defending his comment as harmless.
But the president’s aides apparently knew the potential for political damage. Soon after Air Force One returned Mr. Obama from his West Coast fund-raising trip, he called Ms. Harris and apologized, according to Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
“You know, they are old friends and good friends,” Mr. Carney said, “and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities.”
Mr. Carney repeatedly remarked on Ms. Harris’s abilities, calling her “a remarkably effective leader as attorney general” and “an excellent attorney general” who has “done great work.” The president, Mr. 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 Ms. Harris, Gil Duran, said in a statement on Friday: “The attorney general and the president have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday, and she strongly supports him.”
Notwithstanding Obama’s apology to Harris, the criticism that was rendered against him, mostly by people who are generally supporters of the Obama Administration was remarkable both for how swiftly it came down and how severe it was given that we’re talking about what struck me when I first heard about it as an innocuous off the cuff comment made at a partisan event about someone who happened to be a friend. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, had this to say:
[M]ost women in public life have a complex relationship with their appearance, whether they’re as attractive as Harris or not. 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. Why not praise her Homeowners’ Bill of Rights? Calling her “by far, the toughest attorney general” would have had a better ring. There is so much to say about Kamala Harris; the president had far better options than praising her looks.
Garance Franke-Ruta put it this way:
President Obama’s remark mistook the setting. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate to tell a colleague she looks gorgeous when she’s dressed to the nines for some black tie work event, it would be inappropriate to refer to her as “gorgeous over there” during a work meeting. Doing so takes her out of the system of power and puts her into the system of beauty in a setting in which power is the value that’s brought her to the table. And that, dear readers, is a gaffe.
The context in which a remark like this is made is, of course, exceedingly important. A comment like this that takes place in the workplace, say at a meeting in front of co-workers or clients, would most likely be inappropriate an unprofessional. Indeed, in some situations it might give rise to a sexual harassment investigation on the part of the HR Department. However, these comments didn’t take place in a workplace situation, they took place at a private fundraiser at which Harris was the highest ranking California elected official in attendance. Add into that mix the fact that Obama and Harris have known each other for years on a personal level, and I’m really wondering where all the outrage over the President’s comments is coming from. Since all we have of this speech is a transcript (this was a private fundraiser and there was no video) it’s hard for me to judge the context of the comments, but on their face I just don’t get the outrage. And I get even less the amount of attention the media has paid to this story.After all, if Harris wasn’t offended, then why do we really need to listen to the perpetually offended pundits who were offended on her behalf?
It’s also worth noting that Obama has made comments like this before, and not just about women:
Introducing HUD secretary Shaun Donovan last February, Obama declared, “There he is,the good-looking guy in the front here.”
At a speech last March, Obama pointed out his secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, by calling him “a good-looking guy.”
A couple of months ago, Obama gave a shout-out to the “outstanding Secretary of the Navy,” Ray Mabus. “There he is right there — the good-looking guy over at the end.
Obama even extended his favorite compliment to the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. “I have to say all of you look pretty good without your playoff beards,” Obama said during a White House ceremony. “They’re pretty good-looking guys without all that.”
In short, Obama is an equal-opportunity flatterer, not a shallow, sexist pig. Calling people “good-looking” — men, women, Penguins — is just something he does. It’s almost a tic at this point. He doesn’t mean anything by it.
Call it silly, call it awkward, but it’s fairly clear that remarks like this are just something Obama does as part of the friendly banter he often engages in during speeches at events like this California fundraiser. The idea that there was anything sexist behind it seems rather absurd to me.
Of course, all of this does raise wider questions of when it’s appropriate for these kind of comments to be made. Reading Walsh and the others who have criticized the President, it seems like their position is that it’s never appropriate for a man to make a comment like this in public (I assume they’re fine with a husband telling his wife she’s good looking). That strikes me as a silly position, as does the largely overblown reaction to the President’s comments earlier this week. While keeping in mind the importance of not reducing women to merely their looks, it seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with complimenting a woman on her appearance as long as it isn’t being done in an unprofessional manner. The alternative, it seems to me, is a sterile world in which we’re supposed to pretend that men don’t notice attractive women and women don’t notice handsome men.
Then again, maybe that’s exactly the world some of these people want.
And yet you linked and quoted Garance Franke-Ruta stating that there are in fact occasions where it is appropriate, and why she is of the opinion that this one specifically was not.
I’m convinced that the ones complaining about that remark are, quite frankly…idiots.
I think she’s wrong, obviously.
@Doug Mataconis: But she is not saying “men should never compliment a woman on her appearance in public”. she is saying “this was not the occasion to do so” which you interpreted (or acted as though you interpreted) as ” it seems like their position is that it’s never appropriate for a man to make a comment like this in public”.
So given that that is not their position, you are either disagreeing with a strawman, or disagreeing with their actual position, but just going ahead and misrepresenting it anyway as an added bonus.
Her reasoning in support of that position strikes me as rather silly. As I explained in the post, I really find nothing improper about the context in which this happened.
And if she’s going to make the absurd argument that what Obama did was inappropriate, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to draw the conclusion that her real problem is with the remark itself, not the context in which it was made.
It’s truly sad that a remark like this get’s blown out of proportion. It was not something over the top, such as saying, ‘the bitch is fine” or “she really has a great rack”. It was a compliment and one that is truthful…she’s hot.
The furor over Brent Musburgers comments to Katherine Webb was stupid too, and has worked in her favor…
Obama needs better writers. The phrasing was weak.
And the preface at the start really mangled the message
Chop off what I’ve bolded above and it isn’t so bad.
I do think he could have got a bigger laugh if he’d added, “No one tell Eric Holder”
Obama should have called Beau Biden and apologized to him instead. He’s a lot hotter than Kamala Harris.
The analogy to the Katherine Webb comment during the Super Bowl is spot-on.
I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, because I’d be on Obama’s side in that argument
I’m with Doug on this. Can we all just pull the sticks out of our asses and relax a little? Jesus H. Idiotic, content-free phony outrage. I’m so sick of this. There is a whole long, long, long list of real things to worry about.
By the way, I’d extend that to the old fart who used ‘wetback’ last week. He used an unfortunate term. That doesn’t make him Hitler.
It’s the INTENT stupids, not the damned word choice.
I’m not a fan of those who talk about ” humorless feminists” but I can see the point of the characterization here.
Its obvious to me that the intention of Obama was not to mock or objectify but to praise and recognizein a good humored way. I truly do not understand why Obama’s critics did not see that, and accept it in the spirit given. I’m sure Ms. Harris took it precisely that way.
Yes they do and here they are.
Speaking as a woman, I’d be pleased if someone said that. (It’s better than saying, “She’s not bad, but a little Botox and an eye job wouldn’t hurt.” ) I would be offended if a similar assessment of my looks were offered in coarse terms, but not so offended that I’d curl up into a fetal ball and die. When I was younger and hotter, I was really irritated when I’d walk past a construction site and the guys would make loud slurping noises followed by a request to sit on someone’s face.
But what really irritates me is living in a world where you can’t say something nice about someone’s appearance without be considered a potential sexual harasser. Anyone who becomes unhinged over what Obama said needs therapy.
Words have different meanings based on who is saying them and whom they are directed towards. It isn’t always fair, but it’s definitely a natural response based on the history of the group in question and the person making the comments. I remember OTB covering the politician who referred to Obama as “boy”. Obviously if a black politician casually referred to Obama as “boy” there wouldn’t have been an outcry, but it was a southern white Republican who said it. Do you think that a white comedian should be able to say the things that Chris Rock says without people getting upset? It’s the same phenomenon. I don’t think it is the end of the world, but he shouldn’t have said it.
We have to do the hard work of looking at intention and context. This is about people needing to reduce the complexity of human interactions to a set of rigid rules. It’s deadly to communication and in the end subverts free speech.
@MM: The “occasion” was a fundraiser. And fundraisers are basically ocasions when politicians entertain rich people to receive donations. In many occasions, specially informal occasions, men praise the looks of their female friends – most women like it, if it´s not done in a overtly sexual manner.
See, we can agree sometimes. 🙂
I completely agree, I really can’t stand manufactured outrage. But I don’t think you can so easily just ignore all historical context and robotically analyze intent. Female friends and girlfriends have told me about bosses telling them how to wear their hair and what makeup to use, and indicating that it could affect their employment. This doesn’t just include things like restaurant hostess and secretary, but also things like dental hygienist and nurse. My dental hygienist girlfriend tells me that it is an accepted fact that being bubbly, blond, and presenting oneself a certain way vastly increases the chances of getting employment at a dental office. I think the comment plays into some stuff that might really sting folks.
Also I would note that he is a heterosexual man making the comments about a woman. I would feel kinda uncomfortable if a female superior made the comment about me in front of a group of people, even if the intent was pure.
Look at it this way, this is biggest crisis of his presidency since Benghazi. Whether or not it rises to be an offense that is impeachable remains to be seen.
Worth noting that the outrage about these comments came from the left, not the right.
Definitely so Doug. Also worth noting is that all media outlets are covering this story 24/7. On my commute drive time, the only radio places to avoid the story were “sports talk” and NPR’s Kai Ryssdal with “Marketplace.”
It had the effect of making me long for the Solyndra story.
The context is a world where women are judged far more for their appearances then men are, and where women have to spend far more time and money to meet a far higher bar of proper appearance then men do, and where women have a very hard time being judged fairly by their work. That’s the context that half of your fellow Americans live in. There are men who take the effort to keep that in mind, but today, you are not of that number.
And “intent”? What that always means is “ignore the woman’s feelings, ignore what kind of work environment and world comments like those make for women everywhere, because the only thing that matters is what the man was feeling.” Ugg. The feelings of men are not the be-all-end-all of how one judges a situation.
Have we sunk to a level today where it is considered offensive to compliment a woman (or man for that matter) on their looks? How has this happened?
Look, it’s no big deal. It’s what Obama does. But he’s a liberal, so it’s no big deal.
Liberal men are allowed all kinds of slack as long as they make the proper noises and gestures towards feminism. Hell, one reporter said she’d happily give Bill Clinton a blowjob for his position on abortion.
@Jenos Idanian #13:
Gee, did his remarks to AG Harris “rise” to the level of typical base Republican male comments about “legitimate rape?”
@al-Ameda: Shut up and go make me a sammich.
@Jenos Idanian #13:
I’ll have them send up Crow sandwich and an extra strong batch of Kool Aid for you.
I’m old enough to have been around for this entire cycle, including the part where women decided they didn’t need to care about their looks. . . and yet continued to. Who is forcing women to get pedicures and bikini waxes? People care about their looks, men and women, and they use their looks to advantage — man or woman. You think men enjoy wearing a suit and tie to work? You think men want to get their hair cut every two weeks? You think they enjoy life at the gym? (Well, some do, but they have mental issues.)
What you’re missing is that the entire society has become more body-obsessed and superficial, regardless of gender. No one is forcing that on anyone. No one is forcing little girls to swoon over Taylor Lautner’s abs, and no one is forcing little boys to ogle Sofia Vergara.
We are and will remain sexual creatures. Men will always notice women, and women will do the same. And men will notice men and women will notice women. It’s a whole big world of noticing. And if you think no man ever got a job by looking good I have a nice bridge I can let you have cheap.
I just bought a jacket that cost twice what I used to spend to buy a rusted Dodge Dart, and I did it because I have some events to go to that require it. And I know that at those events I’ll be judged by my clothing, my weight, my hair (or lack thereof) my height, the width of my shoulders, the shine on my shoes, the price of my watch, the type of phone I carry, the presence or absence of a ring on my left hand and the size and weight there-of if present.
This is not a one-way oppression of women, it’s an equal opportunity ethos. Everyone is on display.
Two other points.
One: there’s a condescension here. Do we suppose that the AG didn’t know she was attractive until Obama opened his mouth? Are we to believe that this accomplished woman was blissfully unaware of the role that physical attractiveness plays in life?
Two: Even in female-dominated professions looks matter. (As they do between men in male fields.) My wife has an event in January. She’s been shopping dresses like mad, and she’s a woman who left to her own devices wouldn’t own a dress, period. The male audience for this event will be maybe 5% of the total in the room, and they won’t be the important ones. She’s dressing up and hitting the treadmill for women.
I REALLY enjoy life at the gym. But I also enjoy commenting on blogs, so, I probably have mental issues.
I think that women are far more uncomfortable in high heels then men are in ties.
That’s not what this is about. This is about the fact that you can take a baby, dress it in a pink outfit, and everyone will coo over how beautiful the baby is, and when you dress the same baby up in a blue outfit, people coo over how big and strong the baby is. Same baby, judged entirely differently based on the perceived gender. And this doesn’t stop after infancy.
How a woman looks is a huge factor in how she is judged compared to her abilities, while for men, accomplishments are more important and appearance is second.
Not really. I have the famous Dan Quayle-Bobby Jindal syndrome(I look something like ten years younger than I really am) and I can say that people judges me by that. People also judges me because I look like an Asian(Well, both my grandparents from my mom´s side came from Japan), and it could be worse. Black men(Specially large African American men) are judged by their appearances all the time. Short men are judged by their appearance all the time(http://www.jonathanrauch.com/jrauch_articles/height_discrimination_short_guys_finish_last/).
And appearance is not a superficial matter. Articulated and competent people will sound more attractive than people that can barely speak in front of people. Gwen Iffill is an example: she may be *physically* unattractive, but she is so charismatic and so articulate that she sometimes looks like the most beautiful woman in the world.
@al-Ameda: Let me expand upon that:
I cited two very popular Democratic presidents. You picked a Republican who nobody heard of before.
It seems that as long as a politician says and does the right things about abortion, he can treat women however he likes. George W. Bush was far more respectful of women than Obama or Clinton, but since he wasn’t pro-abortion, he was considered the arch-enemy of feminism.
It seems the old misogynistic joke — “what’s a woman? A life support system for a (vajayjay)” is now Official Femnist Policy. How sad that the people who most reduce a woman to her reproductive parts are those who consider themselves the most concerned with women’s rights.
All the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
@michael reynolds: My first car cost $65 $120 to fix up. If I had only kept it – it would easily be worth six figures today.
Yes, I really enjoy wearing a suit and tie to work.
Yeah, I do. It’s kind of pleasant at the barbershop.
Yeah, I do. It’s healthy. It’s better than sitting around on the couch. Life at the gym is why I’m still beating guys 20 years younger than me in road races.
I presume Harris is the loopiest state attorney general out there. Otherwise there are states in worse shape law enforcement wise than CA, which would be pretty f’n scary.
In any event, I don’t think it’s all that shocking that some Obamabots in the media-academe-politico complex are all verklempt about this. Obama has been pissing all over the far left since Jan. 2009. Think about it. Gitmo still is open for business. The drone strikes. The renditions. Libya. Afghanistan. Iraq in ’09, ’10, ’11. No card check. No cap and trade. It took him until 2012 to say he’s for gay marriage (wink, wink). The repeated caving in to Team Boehner. Making the Bush tax cuts permanent even for very high wage earners. The white male inner circle. The white male nominees and appointees.
It’s added up. So when Obama goes all Billy Dee Williams on a pinup doll of a state office holder it’s bound to set off some people on Planet Liberal. Reflexes take over. But, alas, liberals when it comes to Obama are like battered women suffering from battered women’s syndrome. It’s not really Obama’s fault. It’s their fault. They fell down the stairs, if you catch the drift. By tomorrow they’ll love him again. Blindly.
@Jenos Idanian #13: “George W. Bush was far more respectful of women than Obama or Clinton, but since he wasn’t pro-abortion, he was considered the arch-enemy of feminism.”
Maybe someday you’ll work up the nerve to actually talk to a woman, and then you can start to understand why many of them don’t consider men who believe they have all rights to control a woman’s most basic, intimate rights “respectful” of them.
This isn’t 1850 Alabama. Calling a grown woman “little lady” and forcing her to bear her rapist’s child, or stripping her of the right to use birth control, doesn’t equal “respect.”
Yes, now you can carry on as if this is about abortion, because all iberals hate babies blah blah blah.
But it’s actually about freedom, a concept those on the right care deeply about as long as it’s for white men.
@wr: But it’s actually about freedom, a concept those on the right care deeply about as long as it’s for white men.
No, it’s about abortion. Because, as I’ve challenged repeatedly, sex is pretty much the only area where your side believes in “freedom” and “choice.” (I’ve recently revised that to pot as well.) In both cases, it’s a matter of “we want to be free of the consequences of our choices.” In pretty much any other area — school choice, seat belts, health insurance, gun ownership, tobacco use, large sodas, unsaturated fats, raw milk, and a host of others — we must be protected from making “bad” choices.
You want to sound remotely convincing that you’re actually in favor of freedom? That it’s about more than just abortion? Cite a few other areas where you respect freedom.
Mantis wouldn’t. anjin-san picked another area where he doesn’t believe in choice, and continued to rationalize his dictatorial instincts. I have little hope you can cite other areas where you believe in “freedom” and “choice.”
And Bush appointed quite a few women to high office. How many women are in Obama’s cabinet?
@Jenos Idanian #13:
Actually, I cited this:
… which happens to be a reference to the fact that about half the current Republican Party base believes in that “legitimate rape” concept.
You picked a helluva president to hold up as a model. Harriet Myers and the deluded mushroom cloud smoking gun lady are just two of many examples of Mr. Bush’s feckless appointee choices.
@Jenos Idanian #13: You constantly engage in what you think is some impressive logic on this “choice” issue, but you are creating false equivalencies in which you pretend like whatever issue one is discussing is a dichotomous O or 1 (i.e., zero choice v. total choice). On none of the issues, be it pot, abortion, or schools is this the case.
Take pot: those who think it should be legal do not argue for the right to smoke pot whenever and wherever one wants.
Take schools: private schools are not illegal.
Even the silly soda ban in NYC did not stop people from drinking as much soda as they wanted, it simply structured the conditions under which people could choose to consume large amounts of soda.
You are not making the perfect argument you think you are making.
@Steven L. Taylor: I apologize for over-simplifying. “School choice” usually includes the offering of vouchers that parents can use to send their child to the school of their choice. As you note, “school choice” is currently only a right for the wealthy; everyone has the choice of sending their kid to the designated school, or to another one — but they still get to pay for the designated school. The “choice” is available only to those who can afford it.
The standard arguments about abortion say that such restrictions are unconscionable — abortion only to those who can afford it. And I think that parents of all economic strata should be able to choose what schools their children attend. Even if the vouchers can only be used in public schools, that’s a positive change.
The soda argument you make about it being an inconvenience — I agree, it is. But don’t you see it as “I don’t like your choice, so I’m going to make it more difficult for you to make that choice because I disapprove of you doing that?” Again, I see it as an unjustified intrusion.
The burden of proof should be on those who wish to constrain the rights of others. And that standard should be very high. “You might cost us money some day in the future” is a very poor reason — once it’s upheld as an appropriate justification, all sorts of things can be brought under its umbrella. One clear example I’ve cited a few times is unprotected male-male sex.
@Jenos Idanian #13: Yes, but with abortion, even the most liberal of states have some limitations on abortion. The debate is not 0s and 1s.
@michael reynolds: This. Also, remember when the coffee chain ‘Beaners’ had to change their name? The original owners had no idea this was offensive, they were simply talking about, you know, coffee beans. I think it was wise to change the name, but to accuse them of crimes against humanity was stupid.
By the way, I originally took Obama’s comment as a joke about how few women AGs there are, which would also be acceptable.
@michael reynolds: What bullshit. ” we are and will remain sexual creatures.”. Obviously, dumb ass. But we are not allowed to be so in the workplace. We are not allowed to make women sexual objects without demeaning men in the same way.
I voted for Obama twice. I am proud he is my president and think he does it well. But when he is wrong he is wrong. Harris’s beauty is none of his damn business. When men like Scott brown play on their physical appearance we despise them and rightfully so.
Nobody talks about the length of Joe bidens hair. But everyone gets to wonder why Hillary doesn’t try to be more attractive. FU. It’s time you acknowledge YOU need to stop making excuses for your double standard. We are NOT sexual creatures in the work place. If the president wouldn’t say it to a man he shouldn’t say it to a woman. Stop making excuses for behaving like the aholes you criticize. He was wrong.
If you actually read the post, you’ll see that the President *has* made those type of comments to men, many times.
@Franklin: True enough. It’s one of his little verbal tics — like “punches above their weight” and “as I’ve always said.”
Harris’s beauty is none of his damn business.
This is just silly. How a person presents him/herself in public is not a private matter that is nobody else’s business. Let’s also not forget that the two are friends.
When men like Scott brown play on their physical appearance we despise them and rightfully so.
We do? I don’t. Sounds like you are the one with some issues.
Nobody talks about the length of Joe bidens hair.
This is absurd. People have talked about (and made fun of) Biden’s plugs for years. Here’s the New York Times talking about them just a few months ago.
But everyone gets to wonder why Hillary doesn’t try to be more attractive.
Let us know when you have devised a way to prevent people from “wondering” things.
If the president wouldn’t say it to a man he shouldn’t say it to a woman.
If you bothered to read the post your commenting on, you would notice that Obama has said the same things about men, repeatedly.
You really are an intolerable prig. Get over yourself.
I figure it was a kind of a dumbass thing to say, and he got some flack for it. The end.
It’s not about noticing that somebody’s hot. It’s about being POTUS and talking about someone’s looks.
A conservative is whining about the well-to-do being privileged?
Repeating nonsense does not make it any less nonsensical. But, over time, I am coming to think that you actually believe this crap. Is your grasp on reality really as weak as it seems to be?
Feel free to show the class where I actually did that. I believe I said that restaurants posting nutritional information, especially calories, was a good thing. Call me Stalin.
Oh, and BTW, since you remember something I posted, does that mean you are “obsessed” with me? It was just a short time ago you tried that rather lame line out on me…
At any rate, people have read your rants here, and noticed you are alive. Oh, and you annoyed some liberals. Your life has meaning.
@anjin-san: Nah, Jenos just doesn’t think that women have any right to bodily autonomy, thass all….it’s perfectly fine to use their bodies as life-support systems for a zygote against their wills but god forbid Jenos has to pay a 2% higher income tax because that would be SLAVERY!