Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's 'best-looking' remark was sexist

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
April 7, 2013 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT