President Obama courted controversy on Thursday with a glowing description of California Attorney General Kamala Harris that included discussion of her physical attractiveness. While the comments were undoubtedly intended to lighten the mood, they were neither sensible or appropriate coming from the president of the United States. Worst of all, they are the latest in a series of inappropriate comments of this nature.
The president made a series of complimentary remarks about his longtime friend during the fundraiser. When describing Harris, he said, "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,” the president continued. In response to laughter from the crowd, Obama exclaimed, "It's true! Come on!"
It is certainly not the first time that a politician has added superficial qualities into a description of one of their colleagues. At a different fundraiser in 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid erred on the side of cringe-worthy, stating that “many senators are known for many things” adding that “we in the Senate refer to Sen. Gillibrand as the hottest member.” Reid went on to discuss Gillibrand’s ability in certain areas of policy. Unsurprisingly, however, these were not the qualities that generated press coverage.
Inappropriate comments about appearance are, of course, not limited to Democratic politicians. Former Republican attorney general candidate David Freed did not endear himself to the Pennsylvania public when he suggested that opponent Kathleen Kane’s strengths are that she is “pretty and has a lot of money.” He managed to avoid even utilising good intentions, using her looks to form part of an insult about her proposed lack of substance.
Obama, normally quite the wordsmith, could surely have avoided this mishap. It is easy to believe that he had the best of intentions, given his past relationship with Harris, and the inherent complementary nature of the comment. However, it shows an inability to separate the physical attributes of a female politician from qualities that make her suitable for the role she occupies. Experienced in delivering rousing speeches, you would expect President Obama to be able to distinguish between the two when presenting public remarks.
Very few would doubt the good nature of the comments made by President Obama. However, politicians who are unable to refrain from bringing physical qualities into public remarks about a colleague need to wean themselves from this urge. Quite why they feel the need to do so is not abundantly clear.