"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."This is clearly innocuous, clearly a friendly remark. And yet he apologized. Why?
I haven't read all the articles about this - but I've seen the "it was just a compliment, why can't we compliment people?" complaints, and I found Eric Golub of the Washington Times saying this:
Until every woman is reduced to an asexual character resembling Bebe Neuwirth’s “Cheers” character Lilith Crane, feminists will keep complaining.
Both those positions are extremes; of course we can compliment people, and no, we don't want to reduce women to asexuality. But I have to admit, when I first heard the out-of-context phrase, "the best-looking attorney general in the country," my hackles went up - and I like Obama.
I think reaction to this remark depends not only on your gender but your age. I predate the feminist revolution; Barack Obama doesn't. When I was a teenager, women weren't lawyers - ask Sandra Day O'Connor. In fact when I was in college, considering careers, I had a very small number of options: teacher, nurse, secretary, librarian. Lawyer wasn't on the list; neither was attorney general, or any elected position. The degree a lot of women expected to get when I was in college was the "Mrs."
I also remember when women began to get into those jobs, and other jobs that society in the Fifties regarded as "men's work." At that time a compliment on her looks to a professional woman, especially from a powerful man, carried a sting - if you're that attractive, you can't be any good. You must have slept your way there. The women who got those jobs early were tough pioneers, and these were among the arrows in their backs.
When you say this flatly in the 21st century it's absurd, but in the middle of the 20th century society seriously believed that only a homely woman could be competent or intelligent, and a beautiful woman in a position of power must have used sex to get there. And the mere implication was the best option. In the worst cases the compliment was followed by a more-or-less active attempt to force attentions on the woman. I have worked with an attractive woman, a secretary, who told me she had turned down a job because the boss made it clear that he expected sexual favors.
For background on this, read a good biography of Hedy Lamarr - the woman who helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication techniques, the basis of Bluetooth and WiFi. Her intelligence is supported by the patent in her name, US Patent 2,292,387. But most people thought of her as a "pin-up girl." And I don't watch TV, so I don't watch Mad Men, but I'll bet you see this attitude there, if you look.
As I said, Barack Obama didn't experience the pre-feminist world. But he's bright enough to know it existed; that's why he gave the compliment that elaborate wind-up. (Which is all quite true.) And that's also why, when the out-of-context remark hit the media, he apologized. Because the sting has largely been drawn; but the memory of it lingers, like a bad smell in the corner of the room. You're too good looking to be that smart. It's only been 50 years or so; we've come a long way, but not yet quite far enough.