Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's 'best-looking' remark was sexist

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Sun April 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama referred to Kamala Harris as the best-looking attorney general
  • Ruben Navarrette: The president's comment is inappropriate
  • He says the remark objectifies a professional woman, and is unlikely to be said about a man
  • Navarrette: Obama isn't getting much criticism, partly because there is selective outrage

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- It's a good thing that Barack Obama is only the president of the United States and leader of the free world, and that he doesn't have a really important job like television sportscaster.

Because in that other role, as we learned a few months ago, a man is simply not allowed to publicly compliment a woman on her good looks without getting in big trouble.

Just ask Brent Musburger. In January, after the BCS National Championship game, the ESPN commentator came under fire in the media and blogosphere. At issue: off-handed comments that Musburger made about University of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron's girlfriend, Katherine Webb.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

ESPN issued an apology, saying that the 73-year-old veteran sportscaster "went too far" in his commentary. In an interview with the New York Times, Michigan State University journalism professor Sue Carter called what Musburger said "extraordinarily inappropriate." On the sports news website, BleacherReport.com, Jessica Isner suggested that his remarks were, at the least, "weird and creepy."

It went on and on.

Opinion: Give Brent Musburger a break

So what did Musburger say back then that was so terrible? As the camera focused on Webb, a former Miss Alabama, in the stands, the sportscaster turned to his co-announcer Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State University, and said: "You quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman."

The cad.

Was this an overreaction? And did Musburger get a bum rap? Yes, and yes. But not many people said so at the time. Instead, the dominant narrative was that a public figure had succumbed to voyeurism and was essentially "hitting on" this young woman.

Opinion: Obama comment sexist? I call it a compliment

By contrast, Obama isn't catching much criticism for a similar comment that he made Thursday during a swing through California. The wince-inducing remark may have been nothing more than innocent banter between old friends, as Obama supporters claimed. But it is also undeniably sexist.

How do we know? Because the comment objectifies a professional woman, and it is not something that you're likely to hear said about a man with the same credentials.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It all happened at a fundraising lunch Thursday in Atherton, California, as Obama was rattling off the qualities of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is often mentioned as a likely future gubernatorial candidate.

Those of us who live in California already know that Harris is smart, tough and likable. Now, thanks to Obama, we know something else.

"She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough," Obama said in describing our state's chief law enforcement officer. "She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country."

Obama's 'best-looking' quip: Appropriate in the real world?

The fact that the crowd responded with a mixture of chuckles and groans must have signaled to the president that he had stepped in it.

"It's true," he told the crowd. "Come on."

No, Mr. President, you come on. This is how you talk about a colleague, a fellow elected official, a fellow lawyer with the goods to compete head to head with any man in the country?

All this talk about how Barack Obama is a different type of leader for a new century, one unencumbered by the prejudices and stereotypes that plagued earlier generations and one who symbolizes how far we've come. And this is what we get?

"The West Wing" meets "Mad Men."

So, when a reporter for the Fresno Bee asked Patty Bellasalma, president of the California chapter of National Organization for Women, about the president's comments, she couldn't hide her disgust.

Not for the president. But for the reporter.

"I wish (this call) was about something substantive," Bellasalma told the journalist. "I think that is my reaction, is that that seems to be the only time that the California National Organization for Women gets called isn't when full-scope pregnancy coverage is being cut from the budget or something other that's going to impact women in a detrimental way right here in this city in the state government. But we worry about whether the president thinks Kamala Harris is pretty. I guess my comment is no comment, because we're too busy trying to protect women and girls."

Oh, brother. Talk about an overreaction.

On Friday, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Obama called Harris to apologize -- not for his comments, but for the "distraction" they created. The president, Carney said, did not want "in any way to diminish the attorney general's profession, accomplishments and her capabilities." He added that Obama "fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance."

Harris' communications director, Gil Duran, said in a statement that the attorney general and Obama "have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him."

Those are nice statements. But they don't end the controversy. The issue isn't just what Obama said but how folks are reacting to what he said.

There is only one reason the president is skating on these remarks. It's because the people who normally complain about this stuff -- the folks who make up the grievance lobby -- are among his strongest supporters.

This is an example of selective outrage and double standards. That part of the story isn't pretty.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT