CNN anchor Don Lemon found himself on the hot seat Thursday after saying that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime,” a comment that caused on-air tension and drew prompt criticism.
During a discussion on “CNN This Morning,” Lemon appeared to take issue with Haley’s proposal that politicians older than 75 be mandated to take “mental competency tests.”
Lemon suggested Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who launched her campaign for president this week, should refrain from drawing attention to the age of older politicians because she is past “her prime” as a woman. Haley is 51.
“This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable,” Lemon said. “I think it’s the wrong road to go down. She says people, you know, politicians are suddenly not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry, when a woman is considered to be in her prime [is] in her 20s, and 30s, and maybe 40s.”
Don Lemon: "Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry, when a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s, and 30s, and maybe 40s…"— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) February 16, 2023
Poppy Harlow: "Are you talking about prime for like child bearing?"
"Don’t shoot the messenger! I’m just saying what the facts are! Google it!" pic.twitter.com/n1HmtkWTpl
Hours later, Lemon apologized and said he regretted his comments.
“The reference I made to a woman’s ‘prime’ this morning was inartful and irrelevant, as colleagues and loved ones have pointed out, and I regret it,” Lemon posted on Twitter. “A woman’s age doesn’t define her either personally or professionally. I have countless women in my life who prove that every day.”
The reference I made to a woman’s “prime” this morning was inartful and irrelevant, as colleagues and loved ones have pointed out, and I regret it. A woman’s age doesn't define her either personally or professionally. I have countless women in my life who prove that every day.— Don Lemon (@donlemon) February 16, 2023
Haley is currently the lone Republican challenger to former president Donald Trump. Collins noted that Haley’s proposal appeared to be aimed at Trump and President Biden, who are both older than 75 and would therefore be required to take the tests.
But Lemon shifted gears in the conversation and said the discussion about age made him “uncomfortable.” He then made the comment about Haley not being “in her prime.”
Harlow and Collins immediately balked at his remarks and pressed him to clarify what he meant. Harlow appeared taken aback, asking Lemon “Prime for what?”
“It depends. It’s just like, prime. If you look it up. If you Google when is a woman in her prime, it’ll say 20s, 30s, 40s,” Lemon responded.
“Forties! Oh my god, I have another decade,” Harlow quipped. “Are you talking about prime for, like, childbearing? Or are you talking about prime for being president?”
Lemon seemed to become defensive.
“Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it. Everybody at home, when is a woman in her prime? It says 20s, 30s and 40s,” he said. “I’m just saying Nikki Haley should careful about saying that politicians are not in their prime, and they need to be in their prime when they serve.”
A firestorm soon erupted online, with Lemon receiving criticism across the political spectrum.
“Just thinking about the reporting process that went into this,” tweeted journalist Lachlan Markay. “Don Lemon heard Haley talking about politicians being past their prime, so he googled ‘when are women in their prime’ and decided that was an authoritative metric of presidential fitness. Remarkable.”
Others called Lemon out for what they perceived as blatant sexism.
“This is a whole train wreck (including your attempt to dodge responsibility for your own words). A great example of how nonpartisan sexism is for ambitious women, and how often we get reduced to our childbearing capabilities,” tweeted author Jessica Shorthall. “Thanks for saying it out loud.”
It wasn’t long before Haley chimed in, blasting “liberals” as a whole.
“Liberals can’t stand the idea of having competency tests for older politicians to make sure they can do the job,” she posted on Twitter. “BTW it’s always the liberals who are the most sexist.”
After the segment, the Daily Beast reported that staff at CNN were disgruntled by Lemon’s comments and that several had complained internally. Lemon issued his apology later in the afternoon.
Lemon was off the air on Friday, and his absence quickly sparked speculation online.
“Don has the day off,” Collins said at the top of the broadcast. Harlow was also absent.
Former CNN anchor Brian Stelter tweeted that Lemon was scheduled to be off.
See more reactions to his comments below:
This is sexism, and completely offensive.— Kate Bennett (@KateBennett_DC) February 16, 2023
And it’s amplified by the “sets off” description below. Can women not respond to a boneheaded statement without being accused of overreaction? Also, who over the age of 14 uses “google it!” as a defense 🤦🏻♀️ https://t.co/9zZ5zQHvG0
With the start of each new presidential cycle comes the chance for reporters to do better, less sexist, more fair coverage of all candidates.— Ali Vitali (@alivitali) February 16, 2023
This is a clear example of how *not to do that. But we all have the next year to get it right next time. https://t.co/DqLWvz5Gst
Dear @donlemon,— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) February 16, 2023
My mother is close to turning 70 and she is in her damn prime. Being in YOUR PRIME means being healthy and happy and fully confident in who you really are and what your purpose in life is...
A woman in her PRIME https://t.co/CQtwP9y7vm