by Ruben Navarrette Jr.
(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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.