Marcos Breton
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  • Richard Vogel / Associated Press

    The compliment on Attorney General Kamala Harris' appearance triggered a debate about women and the workplace.

  • Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton: Outcry over Obama's compliment is overdone

Published: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:54 pm

If today's parents accomplish anything, it's to teach our daughters that there is nothing any man – including the president of the United States – could say to diminish them.

The essence of power within anyone – man or woman – is to have the self-confidence that allows you not to overreact to the words directed at you, whether they're said with contempt or playfulness.

Apparently, a lot of women – and men – don't get that.

President Barack Obama was clearly being playful with an old friend, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, when he said last week that she was the "best-looking attorney general in the country."

The Internet outcry over his remarks was not only predictable, it illustrated how far our culture has yet to fully embrace female ascension in the workplace.

It was as if Harris had been mistaken for Anita Hill. The public discussion took crazy twists and turns, while the president's words were linked with tortuous meditations on male-female income disparities and other hot-button issues.

The most confused people were angered by Obama's remark about Harris at a Silicon Valley fundraiser. Then there were those who seemed to feel they "should" be upset.

"Was the comment REALLY necessary?" wrote a media colleague in her blog. "While I am not MAD like some people are, I AM disappointed in the kind of knee-jerk reaction that men, including the president, still have toward women … as if we are holding our breath through all the accolades hoping, just hoping, that he will also think we are beautiful."

Putting aside the obvious – that comments such as these completely overlook the context of the event in question – a great lesson is being missed. Namely, that Harris crashed through the glass ceiling so completely, she could never be pulled back.

There is no politician in California with a brighter future than Kamala Harris. And to suggest that Harris is not helped by her looks is, well, goofy.

She is in an elite group of Americans to reach the pinnacle of their professions through talent and ambition and who clearly benefited from their looks. You could say the same about Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The American workplace has changed since the issue of sexual harassment exploded with Anita Hill's testimony on Capitol Hill. Back then, I vividly remember female colleagues at The Bee standing shoulder to shoulder in stern silence as Hill testified in 1991 that the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had harassed her in the workplace.

In that moment, a male colleague said to me: "I bet they all have their own story."

No doubt.

When I broke into the workplace in 1986, there was a level of discourse in the newsroom that would never fly today, and rightly so. There are some old bosses at several newspapers who wouldn't last five minutes now, and rightly so.

That's not to say progress still can't be made or that sexual harassment is dead. It's not and should continue to be confronted.

But the Obama-Harris flap proves how the sins of the past can make us blind to the progress of the present. It also proves how absurd we can be.

Recently, I was at a black-tie banquet where I was about to tell my boss how nice she looked when my inner monologue went haywire with fear and paranoia.

"You can't say that!" I said to myself in a panic.

"Why not?" I asked myself incredulously.

"She could take it the wrong way!" I blubbered to myself in horror.

I finally made a joke that she looked really nice but that my comments were "strictly professional."

Her response was laughter – a laughter rooted in the knowledge that if I ever did say something untoward, it would be at my peril and not hers.

It's the same self-confidence that Harris exudes and that the folks upset at Obama seem to lack.

The president apologized for his remark because he had to kowtow to the immaturity of our culture. But some of the people pointing a finger at him would do well to look in the mirror and ask themselves why their self-worth could be so easily threatened by a comment they misunderstood.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.

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Read more articles by Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton, news columnist

Marcos Breton

Hello, my name is Marcos Breton and I'm the news columnist with The Sacramento Bee. What's a columnist supposed to do? I'm supposed to make you think, make you laugh, make you mad or make you see an issue in a different way. I'm supposed to connect the dots on issues, people and relationships that cause things to happen or prevent them from happening in our region. I also write a weekly baseball column during the baseball season. I am a voter in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I have voted for Barry Bonds - twice. I am a native of Northern California. I am the son of Mexican immigrants. I've been at The Bee for more than 20 years, and I love Sacramento.

Phone: 916-321-1096
Twitter: @MarcosBreton

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