But was Obama RIGHT about Kamala Harris?

I’m really not terribly interested in whether President Obama’s compliment about California Attorney General Kamala Harris was “sexist.” After all these years, I’m still trying to figure out an accurate, consistent definition of the term. It seems to shift, depending on context.

I’ll let y’all hash that out. Anyway, here’s what I’m talking about:

Speaking at a fundraiser in a wealthy San Francisco suburb, President Obama praised the looks of California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“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,” Obama said. “She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”

“It’s true! C’mon,” he added, to laughter from the crowd…

And why did they laugh? Because most of the people in the crowd, male and female, had probably had more or less the same thought.

Coming from Obama, I take the remark as pretty benign. If it had come from Bill Clinton, I might react differently. Poor Obama — he’s seen as so aloof, so one time he tries to be a regular guy, to give an honest human reaction, even be gallant, and he ends up having to apologize for it. With Bill Clinton, the remark would be superfluous because we already knew he was a “regular guy” — and not in a good way.


And really, I want to hear from everyone on this. I’m not looking for the male reaction. Women are equally fine judges of pulchritude. I’m not looking for anything salacious or lascivious. I’m thinking more on the level of that episode of “Seinfeld” when George said of Joe DiMaggio, “Now that is a handsome man.”No, for once, I’d rather stay away from the value judgments, and ask a simple question: Was the president’s observation accurate?

When I started writing this post, I meant to link to a site that would show us all of the attorneys general. Unfortunately, the only link I’ve found that looks like it would enable us to do that doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe a lot of other people had the same thought, and overloaded the site — I don’t know.

I can say that, based on the photos I’ve looked at, she’s the best-looking attorney general I’ve ever seen. (Henry McMaster may have been tall and well-coiffed, but come on…) But I may have missed some unusually handsome examples of both genders; I must admit that.

I’m just trying to help the president out here, on the theory that truth is an effective defense…

40 thoughts on “But was Obama RIGHT about Kamala Harris?

  1. Doug Ross

    For a nearly 50 year old woman she’s okay…hardly beautiful. I’ve seen a lot better in that age range,. In the same age group for example Julianne Moore, Dana Delaney, and Christie Brinkley (all older than Kamala Harris) are more beautiful.

    Glad it was a Democrat who said it. Makes the fanboys and girls have to take sides.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      And being beautiful is a relevant aspect of being a model or leading actress. Not at all relevant, and dismissive, to an attorney general.

      Obama was way out of line remarking so.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Truth is not a defense to sexist remarks. Hide behind your white male privilege, how ’bout it?

    1. Bryan Caskey

      But if a lady is objectively pretty (which I think is Brad’s question here) then what’s the harm in saying so? It’s a compliment. Is it still ok to open a door for a lady? Or is that a sexist action that implies women are weak and cannot open doors for themselves, thereby continuing the patriarchal dominance?

      Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes guys are just being nice.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Because it implies that she is more valuable, so long as she is attractive to men. It also suggests that she is less competent and got where she is because she is attractive. It judges women on different standards from men. What else….

        It’s like consensual sexual harassment, in that the woman loses credibility, but also all the nonparticipants who are more qualified but failed to get the preferential treatment accorded the woman. And yes, the sexes can be reversed and it still holds in the sexual harassment case. Not so much in the appearance area, where gorgeous men have never had a clear cut advantage as gorgeous women have.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          So it’s impossible to say that someone is pretty without implying that they are more valuable because of their looks? Should I stop telling women that they “look nice today”?

          Is the whole cosmetics industry sexist? All they do is try to make women more visually appealing according to the male dominated society. What about the fashion industry? All they do is try to make women look attractive in this gown or that dress.

          What’s the limiting principle here?

          At a certain point it gets silly. Save the cries of “Sexism!” for when someone is saying that women can’t do the job *because they’re women*. I’ll have your back then.

        2. Bart

          “..where gorgeous men have never had a clear cut advantage as gorgeous women have.”…Kathryn

          Sorry, will most definitely have to disagree on your statement. Study and study has proven that attractive men and women are more likely to be hired over an unattractive person, they make at least 10% more on average and the list goes on and on.

          I am not an Obama fan but his awkward attempt to pay the attorney general a compliment came “after” he acknowledged her qualifications that did not include her good looks were blown out of proportion by everyone, especially the right. And the left took him to task for his remarks as well.

          Over the years when it was necessary to interview applicants for a job or position, I always studied their application first and formed a preliminary impression of the person, male or female. Depending on the position, in some instances looks were a consideration. That is a simple fact of life, like it or not.

          Yes, it was not the proper venue but was it sexist, chauvanistic, or demeaning? I think not. I have to defend Obama on this one.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Sure, attractive people do better, but the advantage is far greater for women.
            Men are not generally referred to by their, um, beddability.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            I hired a lot of people over the years (although, alas, more in the early part of my career than in the latter part), and I think I can accurately claim that physical attractiveness was never a factor. But it was interesting to see how OTHER people reacted to the attractiveness of the candidates I brought in.

            I hired one guy, many years ago, who several women who met him during the hiring progress urged me to hire, and they were frank about the reason — they thought him really attractive. Worst hire I ever made. The guy didn’t work out at all.

            However, I can say that all the attractive women I hired worked out quite well.

            One of the more attractive female hires I made — and one of the best — was a bit of an uphill climb. This was in my newsroom days. The higher-ups wanted someone with more experience, and the woman I wanted was lacking in resume, but young, hungry and talented. I later learned that my female boss had observed to another editor that it was easy to see why I wanted to hire her — she was “gorgeous” (her word, not mine). I pushed until I got to hire her anyway. She quickly showed the doubters were wrong.

            Another time, I was considering a rather stunning young woman, and I spoke with a female friend who just happened to be a former supervisor of hers. The friend told me in no uncertain terms that she was trouble, completely unreliable. She said, “Yeah, she’s really beautiful, but it would be a mistake to hire her.” Like she thought that’s why I was considering her.

            I didn’t choose her. I chose an older woman who I thought was better suited. Some time after I did, another woman in the office told me she thought that was one of the best hires I ever made. And something she said (I forget what now) made me think that she was trying to give me positive reinforcement for not having hired the hot young one. Like she thought I had gone against my inclinations.

            Sometimes it’s women who take the most notice of another woman’s attractiveness.

            In any case, I’ve had occasion to notice that women have a low opinion of men’s judgment when it comes to anything that might bear on sexual attraction. I guess it’s hard to blame them.

          3. Silence

            In an office I used to work in, the old, less attractive ladies (referred to as the “coven”) often conspired against any young and attractive women who worked in the office. On numerous occasions people got counseled or reprimanded via the HR section for inappropriate dress (it was completely appropriate for an office by any standard) and also for spending too much time away from their desks (doing work elsewhere in the building). It’s a double edged sword. You look good, you get noticed, for better or for worse. As an addendum, years later several of the younger women are still working in the office, and have advanced satisfactorally in their careers through hard work and competence. Another of the coven’s targets left and is doing quite well professionally and financially at a different business.

  3. Jennifer Fitz

    I’ve only seen a few AG photos, so I couldn’t tell you for certain where it ranks on a scale of 1-50, but the one above is gorgeous. One needn’t get mired in technicalities. I’m no fan of Obama’s politics, but I think the comment can be charitably interpreted as friendly banter. Along the same lines as if a current AG were a former pro-quarterback — we might make some passing quip about his sports prowess in an introduction, without for a moment implying that men are only valued for their athleticism.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      But men are not been valued for their athleticism in modern society to the extent that women have been valued, largely, for their looks.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Throughout recorded history women have largely been valued for their looks – and personality. That’s just the facts. I could understand this bruhaha had it come out that Obama had made such a comment during the vetting process for an administration position; but not as a friendly intro remark.

        But take heart, it has only been the last 100 or so years that intelligence has been generally valued – for men or women.

        Why was this comment a big deal, by the President or otherwise? Especially as it would seem that she did in fact sleep her way to the top (having long been the mistress of the married speaker of the California house I read). Maybe that’s really what made this a lightening rod comment?

      2. JesseS

        Hrm, athleticism? I’ll have to remember that if I ever have to butter up a male AG. Worth a shot I guess.

          1. Doug Ross

            Lots of makeup, hair coloring going on there… she’s not Halle Berry or Whitney Houston in her prime.

  4. Kay Packett

    She’s beautiful, in my opinion.

    I’ve never gotten all that worked up about men complimenting women on their appearance. Which is good, because back before the flood, Strom routinely introduced me as his “pretty little press secretary” (he never said my actual name), although he was careful to add “and she can write, too.” I always thought it was kind of nice, particularly since I wasn’t especially pretty. Still, Strom was an old southern gentleman. It sounded wrong coming from Obama.

    I don’t like the double standard either. Can you imagine a woman doing the same thing? “Mr. Cabinet Secretary, please meet my legislative director. He’s not just strong and handsome, he’s also fairly bright.” That would be creepy. On top of demeaning.

    1. Brad Warthen

      It’s not really a double standard. That suggests men and women react the same to looks. They don’t. Sexual attraction works differently in men and women.

      1. Kay Packett

        I’m going to need you to elaborate on that, because I don’t believe it for a minute.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, well… men are more about the outward appearance of a woman’s body. Women tend to take other characteristics into consideration.

        Of course that’s an oversimplification, but it touches on the essential difference.

        I’m not talking about the traits upon which decisions to marry are based. I’m just talking about initial, superficial sexual attraction. Men are more visually oriented.

        Look at pornography and who consumes it. Pornography aimed at men tends to be graphic representations of sex, and short on plot.

        The closest thing to “pornography” having a broad appeal to women is the heavy-breathing novel, like “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

        Women need a paragraph. Men just need a photograph.

        OK, one more example — the old joke that ends with some variant on “Show up naked.” Its humor is based on something most of us have observed about a key difference between men and women.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        Here’s a mildly humorous scene from a Woody Allen movie that I coincidentally ran across tonight. While it doesn’t deal with exactly the SAME differences between men and women I was mentioning above, it does derive its humor from the incongruity of a man speaking the way a woman might in such a sexual situation. Which kind of freaks the woman out…

      4. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’m not going to try to make like Freud and get overly deeply into the meaning of jokes, but jokes such as that one work when they successfully describe something that the audience knows to be true.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      In a USAToday “Quick Poll” connected with that item, 65 percent of respondents said Fallon’s Kamala Harris jokes were funnier than Leno’s. They were right.

      Even though, of course, a self-selected sample such as that is not a “poll”…

    1. Steven Davis II

      How many layers of makup does that Lindy West have on? I bet you could scrap it off with a putty knife.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      My, what a nonsensical rant that was. It read like a 12-year-old lecturing her elders about the way the world is NOW…

      Some of us think more in terms of the way the world always has been, is now, and ever will be, regardless of social trends. Not that a species can’t change. But “thinking humans” (to borrow a phrase abused in that piece) know that evolution takes awhile, and we don’t confuse it with social trends developing well within a single human lifespan. If anyone present can remember when things were not as they are, it’s not evolution.

      That’s one of the problems with the louder, less mature sort of modernist. They see whatever they believe in as “progress,” see “progress” as an indisputable good, and see it as an inevitable result of time passing — all of which are questionable.

      1. Mark Stewart

        The issue in Kathryn’s article is that people can compliment other people – even about their attractiveness – without it being about wanting (dreaming, hoping, whatever) to have sex with them. That’s drawing a false linkage.

        The real issue is that Obama doesn’t have the gift of smarmy charm that enabled both Bush 43 and Clinton to get away with comments like that without raising an eyebrow on anyone. For Obama, it was less about the utterance than the way it was conveyed. He sounded like a geeky kid. End of story.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    Not listening to anyone disputing the wrongfulness of Obama’s remark who hasn’t worked while wearing pantyhose.

    1. Steven Davis II

      So you’re sexually discriminating comments here.

      Nothing sexy about pantyhose anyway… I think that’s what my grandma used to wear. if I were king, I’d require that they go back to nylons with a seam running up the back.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    I just happened to stumble upon this thread from two years back, and enjoyed reading it.

    Good one, everybody! Everyone expressed themselves well. I even liked a couple of the bits I wrote. Next time I don my Tory hat to grump about the modern world, I may have to dust this off and use it again:

    That’s one of the problems with the louder, less mature sort of modernist. They see whatever they believe in as “progress,” see “progress” as an indisputable good, and see it as an inevitable result of time passing — all of which are questionable.

    Had a nice rhythm to it; easy to dance to. And I didn’t have to follow the link to see what I was talking about. It was obviously another one of those essays you find on the Web by people who write in an indignant, absolutely certain, adolescent voice. The blogosphere is full of ’em…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, the exchange was marred by interjections from a certain party who is no longer welcome, but everyone just talked over him…

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