(Providence, Rhode Island) – When President Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country” this week, I swore I was not going to write about it in this column. There were other, more important issues to talk about, I thought. Boy, was I off target. Despite North Korea’s nuclear threats and a looming immigration bill that just might pass, the water cooler (and Internet) debate is all about the President’s remarks. So let’s chat about it!
“What He Said” – I am a great believer in citing a direct quote for accuracy purposes, even though people will dissect it for all the nuances. Here it is:
"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, then added: "She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."
“The Divide” – In reading all the comments on Twitter and elsewhere, I basically would categorize reaction in three groups: “It’s Inappropriate,” "It’s Sexist,” and, “What’s the Big Deal?”
“It’s Inappropriate” – Right off the bat, the President almost admits this by prefacing his remarks with, “You have to be careful…” It’s as if he knew he’d be criticized. While there were no video cameras allowed in the fundraiser, there was a pool reporter whose job it was to take notes and share with the rest of the White House press pool. It has been noted that Harris and Obama have been friends for years, so one friend complimenting the other on appearance or attractiveness is not unusual. If she was a total stranger on a White House job interview, it would have been totally out of bounds.
“It’s Sexist” – Some took offense on gender grounds. When President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, he touted Hagel’s military experience. He did not add, “And Senator Hagel would be the most handsome Defense Secretary we’ve ever had.” The White House and Presidential defenders note that before calling Ms. Harris “the best-looking,” the President used the words "brilliant," "dedicated," "tough" and "fair" to describe Harris’ qualifications to be Attorney General of California. Still, critics say the comment on her looks is a suggestion that Harris got her job based on her beauty first, and not her qualifications.
“What’s the Big Deal?” – A lot of online comments, from both men and women, suggest that there is nothing wrong with a man complimenting a woman, especially when they have been friends for years. Of course, doing so from the podium of a political fundraiser versus one-one-one is a much different dynamic.
“The Double-Standards” – This whole debate is becoming more and more commonplace as more and more women hold office. When Michele Bachmann ran for the Republican Presidential nomination last year, I remember how many people said words to the effect of, “Wow! She looks great at 57, especially after having five kids.” Such remarks were far more common on the campaign trail than comments about the fact that she was a successful tax attorney, with a long record in various elective offices. To some, at least, her looks were more important than her accomplishments. On the other end of the spectrum, how often have you heard disparaging remarks about the looks of Janet Reno, Janet Napolitano and Condoleezza Rice? When called to public service, one hopes we will be judged more on competence and qualifications than on our appearance. As Hillary Clinton might say, “What difference does it make?”
“Women Aren’t Alone” – To couch this whole debate as something women face and men don’t, would be inaccurate, though I concede women fall victim to it far more often. When Scott Brown ran for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, there was no end of stories about him posing nude for "Cosmopolitan" while in law school (to help pay his tuition). Plenty of stories on Gerald Ford mentioned his days as a professional model. (He and Betty once appeared on the cover of Cosmo in the 1940s.) And to many, Ronald Reagan was aided on the road to the White House by his “rugged, Hollywood good looks.” There will always be those who insist John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 because Kennedy was handsome and Nixon was not. Look, appearances make impressions on all of us. It’s human nature. I think the key is whether or not looks are the decisive factor!
“The Bottom Line” – I know Kamala Harris, as I covered her campaign for San Francisco District Attorney and part of her tenure in office. We also had lunch together at a charity event in San Francisco years ago. I was impressed. Whether you agree with her politics or not, she is a sharp, well-educated woman, who is fully qualified for every office she has held. In 2010, she defeated Republican Steve Cooley to become Attorney General of California in a very close race, with 4.4 million votes for Harris, to 4.3 million votes for Cooley. Harris ran as the sitting DA in San Francisco; Cooley, as the sitting DA in Los Angeles. In a race that contentious – with two very experienced candidates – the focus was on crime and punishment, business regulation, immigration and a whole host of issues important to Californians. It was hardly a beauty contest!
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