Ordinarily, I’d address you as “Mr. Obama” or “Mr. President,” in deference to your office. But we need to have us a guy-to-guy chat here, so I hope you’ll excuse the familiarity, because I just have to ask:
Barry, brotherman, bubbeleh, what the heck were you thinking? Did you really call California Attorney General Kamala Harris “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country” last week at a Democratic fundraiser in the Bay Area? You weren’t, like, nursing a cold and snockered on Robitussin? You didn’t lose a bet with Joe Biden? You actually said that, of your own free will?
Yes, MSNBC helpfully reminds us that you’ve also complimented men on their looks, dubbing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the entire Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team “good-looking guys.”
Want to know how much that helps you here? What’s the smallest measurable fraction this side of zero?
A man, particularly a powerful man, cannot always speak of or to a woman, as he would one of the fellas. This is what you forgot and the folks who keep saying it was “just a compliment” don’t quite get.
Is that a double standard? Yes. You darn betcha. A certain columnist who happens to be my mother’s oldest son has, in years past, identified this as something he calls the Goliath Principle, after Wilt Chamberlain’s famous observation that “nobody roots for Goliath.”
The Principle holds that, wherever there is an imbalance of power — white vs. black, boss vs. employee, big guy vs. small, man vs. woman — a double standard is an automatic and inevitable byproduct.
As nobody roots for Goliath, so are those with more power always constrained in the things our unwritten societal rules allow them to say or do to those who have less. The maid who snaps at her boss is cheeky; the boss who snaps at her maid is overbearing. The small man who hits the big one is brave (or suicidal). The big man who hits the small one is a bully.
And the woman who compliments her male boss’ looks might be a kiss up or a flirt, but the male boss who does the reverse is a lech or a creep or, at the very least, the embodiment of sexism that imprisons a woman’s entirety behind miscellaneous physical attributes given by God and enhanced by Max Factor. But a woman is more than her looks.
This is a truth we heterosexual men tend to stumble on. Years ago, a woman colleague asked me about famous women I found attractive. Stupidly, I began to reel off a list. It included Marina Sirtis, whom I called “an extraordinary woman.”
My colleague flexed an eyebrow and asked what made her “extraordinary.” And I was majorly busted, man, because I knew next to nothing about the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star — certainly nothing that would make her “extraordinary” — except that she’s gorgeous and becomes more so when she wears her “Counselor Troi” contact lenses, the ones that turn her eyes into dark, liquid pools of compassion and you gaze into them and feel yourself falling in and know there is nothing you wouldn’t tell her, no secret you wouldn’t … um … wouldn’t …
What were we talking about again?
Oh yeah. Women and their looks and the fact that the smart man avoids discussion of same. Especially if he presides over a Cabinet whose gender diversity is comparable to that of the club that meets in Bart Simpson’s treehouse.
Nor is political embarrassment your only worry. The same day you praised Harris’ looks, the first lady had a faux pas of her own. She called herself a “single mother.” I’m thinking it was no accident.
So, Barry, guy to guy, I leave you with this: Citiflowers is a florist near the White House. They’re open till 6 and take all major credit cards.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com