April 5, 2013
Kamala Harris
California Attorney General Kamala Harris. (California Attorney General’s Office)

Jonathan Capehart yesterday defended President Obama’s comments about California Attorney General Kamala Harris — that she is “by far, the best looking attorney general.” Capehart:

Obama and Harris are longtime friends. . . . 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. 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.

Sorry, but it won’t wash. I recommend that Capehart and anyone else who doesn’t see why the president botched this one to read Irin Carmon, who notes, “This is hardly the first time Obama has been smarmily sexist under the guise of paying a compliment,” and explains exactly why women’s appearance can be “subject to a can’t-win calculus” that should make anyone who care about equality extremely careful about making that kind of comment in most contexts. I’d also recommend Garance Franke-Ruta’s response: “President Obama’s remark mistook the setting. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate to tell a colleague she looks gorgeous when she’s dressed to the nines for some black-tie work event, it would be inappropriate to refer to her as ‘gorgeous over there’ during a work meeting.”

I’ll add one more thing. This isn’t just an instance of a man making a comment about a woman, or a man making a comment about a woman in the wrong setting. It’s an instance of a President of the United States of America making a comment. And that’s why this was inappropriate even if it was, as Capehart believes, banter that would normally be perfectly acceptable because it was understood and accepted by both of the people involved.

In fact, it reminds me of George W. Bush’s habit of bestowing nicknames on everyone around him, a practice that many people — correctly, in my view — found to be inappropriate and demeaning. The problem isn’t so much that he gave nicknames; it’s that no one really can argue with the President of the United States of America when he gives them a nickname they find demeaning. And because it’s hard to argue with the president when he uses language that may or may not be demeaning, it’s important for the president to be especially careful to avoid it.

That’s basically true for anyone in any position of authority, but it’s magnified in the case of the president.

And then its especially true because, like it or not, the president is a role model for others in positions of authority.

Obama really should make this right: He should offer a sincere, sober apology, with an explanation of why his statement was wrong, and a commitment to cut it out in the future. He owes it not only to his own best instincts, but also to all those who voted for him based on those instincts.