BFOQ

There’s the controversy over the president’s comments about the physical attractiveness of the Attorney General of California yesterday, and then there’s the controversy about the defenses various people (many of them journalists and/or Obama fans) have offered, and the second is now beginning to overtake the first. So let’s be clear: Obama has privately and publicly apologized to Kamala Harris for calling her “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” It should also be noted, in mitigation rather than defense, that he had praised her professional abilities before talking about her looks.

But Obama’s friends who aren’t apologizing also aren’t doing him any favors. The more I read, it’s clear the excuses (mostly of the “can’t you take a joke” variety, but some more aggressive about the right to rate women’s looks in public so long as it’s a “compliment”) are surviving sustained scrutiny all that well.

The definitive statement on the underlying issue was made by Salon‘s Irin Carmon:

[If] you have trouble with understanding what context is appropriate for a discussion of someone’s attractiveness, let’s break it down by borrowing a term from discrimination law — BFOQ, which stands for bona fide occupational qualifications. Basically, it says that employers are allowed to discriminate only if the qualities in question are actually necessary and relevant to doing the job — so yes, female models to advertise women’s clothing, but no weight requirements for female flight attendants. Applying the BFOQ test for talking about women’s physical attributes, you might ask yourself the following questions: Are you having sex with this person you want to tell everyone is attractive? Are you trying to get them to agree to have sex with you? Is attractiveness part of their job and thus a professional attribute to be discussed like any other? Are you, perhaps, the cheek-pinching great-uncle of this person and thus entitled to a little slack? (Joe Biden has gotten away with lots, apparently under that unspoken provision.)

So far as I know, Obama can’t answer affirmatively to any of these questions when it comes to Kamala Harris. Fail.

I doubt it will happen again, particularly if Michelle Obama did not find the incident hilarious.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.