After a day in the media spin cycle, President Barack Obama has apologized for a remark that probably didn't feel edgy at the time: calling California Attorney General Kamala Harris "the best-looking attorney general."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday that Obama phoned Harris Thursday night to say he was sorry for the distraction he created with his comments earlier in the day at a private fundraising lunch in Atherton.
Innocent though the comment may have seemed at first, "good-lookinggate" reignited the debate over gender equality, an issue that Obama supporters pushed last year after Republican opponent Mitt Romney's infamous "binders full of women" gaffe. This time, it was the president taking heat from some talk-show hosts and bloggers -- mostly conservatives but also a fair number of those who lean left -- who called the Harris comment sexist. Vanity Fair headlined its web post: "Sexual Harris-ment?"
Still, some pundits were left wondering what the big deal was.
At the outdoor lunch at the home of Levi-Strauss heir John Goldman and his wife, Marcia, the president introduced Harris at the start of his speech, calling her brilliant, dedicated and tough -- "exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law."
"She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country," he said. After applause and laughter, he said: "It's true! Come on." And after some more laughs, he said: "And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."
Harris' reaction wasn't visible to the small number of reporters present, though the crowd of 250 supporters who paid up to $20,000 to attend the event seemed to treat the remark as a harmless joke.
In any case, the admiration may be mutual. In 2009, Harris' official campaign posted a YouTube video in which Harris recalled meeting Obama in Los Angeles after he was elected president. "He looks and he sounds like a million bucks," a smiling Harris said to great applause and no subsequent backlash.
A deadly serious Carney on Friday sought to put the attention on Harris' achievements and Obama's record on women's rights. "They are old friends, and good friends, and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general's professional accomplishments and her capabilities," Carney said, stressing that Obama believes women "should not be judged based on appearance."
The 48-year-old Harris, who lives in San Francisco and is not married, is a former district attorney of San Francisco who began her career as an Alameda County prosecutor. She has not given interviews since Thursday's fundraiser, but her office provided a statement on Friday.
"The attorney general and the president have been friends for many years," the statement said. "They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him."
Not everyone saw Obama's remarks as demeaning to women.
"Judging by some of the comments I've seen on Twitter you'd swear the president was guilty of luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn't know," wrote Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for the Washington Post. "If I thought for one moment that's what was going on, you better believe I'd hammer him for it. But that's not the case here. Far from it. So lighten up, people."
But the chatter showed no immediate signs of abating. In fact, conspiracy theorists were abuzz after first lady Michelle Obama, in an interview with a Vermont TV station Thursday, said "as a busy single mother," before she immediately corrected herself, saying, "Sometimes when you've got the husband who's president it can feel a little single, but he's there."
The first lady might take comfort in knowing that Obama's attention to appearance is not restricted to gender: New York Magazine on Friday posted several quotes on its website showing how Obama has called several men "good-looking."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.