All the Beautiful People

California Attorney General Kamala Harris participates in TheWrap’s ‘The Power Of Leadership’ brunch at Scarpetta on December 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TheWrap

With very little effort I’ve managed to avoid the contretemps over President Obama’s errant hey-good-lookin’ compliment of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. If there’s any good way for a male reporter to discuss this issue (or “issue,”) it hasn’t been discovered. The best response anyone can muster in a situation like this is humor. Yesterday I tweeted a list of the 50 state attorneys general, with the caption “sup hotties,” and twice-elected Maryland AG Doug Gansler sent this response:

But if you want to take it all seriously, you can’t do better than Joan Walsh’s frustrated jeremiad.* Walsh profiled Harris in 2003, when she was merely a rising star. She heard the smears, all about how Harris was only rising because she was beautiful. Yes, in the right circumstances, male politicians get that too—John Edwards never overcame his reputation as a pretty boy, and ironically that was the apex of his public acclaim—but Harris got it worse. And now the crusading attorney general of California, a leading light on foreclosures and other banks-versus-people issues, is most famous as a character in a gaffe story.

I doubt Obama knew any of the lurid history of Harris’s opponents smear attempts.  I assume he thought he was just paying someone he admires a compliment. But most women in public life have a complex relationship with their appearance, whether they’re as attractive as Harris or not. Those of us who’ve fought to make sure that women are seen as more than ornamental – and that includes the president – should know better than to rely on flattering the looks of someone as formidable as Harris. Why not praise her Homeowners’ Bill of Rights? Calling her “by far, the toughest attorney general” would have had a better ring.

It’s simply true that women rise more quickly in politics if they’re “good-looking.” At least once a year, political scientists release the results of a study on candidate attractiveness. The results are mixed, but usually positive for the more attractive types. This is a sop to reality; the McCain aides who elevated Sarah Palin over other potential female nominees did so because Palin was more attractive and better on TV than some women with more experience. The people who host political talk shows range in attractiveness from ruddily handsome to outright pretty. Shaming Barack Obama for noticing this serves a short-term purpose, and a laudable one. The right of men to point out that subordinates are attractive or not isn’t really that precious. But I can see why, say, Rob Lowe classifies something like Kamalagate as a victory for the “P.C. police.”

Correction, April 7, 2013: This post originally said Irin Carmon wrote the excerpted Salon piece.