August 2 2012
Remember Joan Juliet Buck’s famously fawning profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad in Vogue?
The blood-stained tyrant’s wife was depicted as “glamorous, young, and very chic” in a February 2011 piece headlined “Rose of the Desert.” Mirth ensued because quite a few people, unlike Ms. Buck and the editors of Vogue, knew, even then, that Bashar al-Assad was a murderous dictator.
A few thousand dead Syrians later, Ms. Buck has penned an apologia, possibly an attempt to rescue her career, entitled “Mrs. Assad Duped Me,” for the Daily Beast. It’s a hoot and a half, possibly even more hilarious than Ms. Buck's original opus. Ms. Buck describes herself as reluctantly dragooned into doing the unfortunate piece:
Late in the afternoon of Dec. 1, 2010, I got a call from a features editor at Vogue. She asked if I wanted to go to Syria to interview the first lady, Asma al-Assad.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.”
The editor explained that the first lady was young, good-looking, and had never given an interview. Vogue had been trying to get to her for two years. Now she’d hired a PR firm, and they must have pushed her to agree.
“Send a political journalist,” I said.
“We don’t want any politics, none at all,” said the editor, “and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You’d leave in a week.”
Alas, the hapless Ms. Buck was not especially up to date on Syria:
My notions about the country were formed by the British Museum: the head of Gudea, king of Lagash, treasures from Ur, Mesopotamia, Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon—all of which had occupied what is now Syria. Both Aleppo and Damascus had been continuously inhabited for more than five millennia. This was where civilization was born, 6,000 years ago.
Well, yeah, she had heard that the country's more “recent past was grim, violent, and secretive.” There may even have been rumors of oppression. But "the silence and fear were such that little of the oppression showed, apart from vast numbers of secret police, called Mukhabarat.”
The vast numbers of secret police might have been a tip off. But, as Buck correctly notes, the Beautiful People flocked to Syria:
Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry had visited, as well as Sting, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Francis Coppola.
Well, that's practically a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for people who travel in Ms. Buck’s circles. But Ms. Buck did some reporting. She called Barbet Schroeder, the filmmaker who had made "the ultimate documentary" about Idi Amin, and asked about the Assads. He told her that the senior Assad was a tyrant but that the son with the chic wife was “trying to be a reformer.”
But even in Ms. Buck’s circles there might have been some subtle hints that all was not well in Syria:
Someone who had a house in Aleppo said that Asma al-Assad was a bright, energetic woman, to all appearances English, who drove herself everywhere. And, unlike other heads of state he knew, “the Assads really care about their people.”
An aesthete who went to Syria for its ruins raved about Damascus, mentioned in passing some men seen hanged outside the Four Seasons Hotel, and then raved about Palmyra.
Buck says she was also moved to take the assignment by her writerly curiosity:
It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.
By this time, we are beginning to realize that it was not Mrs. Assad who duped Ms. Buck. Ms. Buck who duped Ms. Buck. But your heart aches with pity for Ms. Buck when she later learns that an Assad flunkey assigned to be her minder had told people not to say negative things about the regime to her. How duplicitous.
And then Ms. Buck meets English-born dictator’s wife:
She sounded like the kind of young Englishwoman you’d hear having lunch at the next table at Harvey Nichols.
Crafty Mrs. Assad conceals the truth about her husband from Ms. Buck:
The word president rang as glamorous in her mouth as movie star. The word dictator never got in.
Buck describes eating fondue with the Assads and giving a flash drive of Star Wars as a birthday present to one of the dictator’s children--poor Ms. Buck hadn't realized it was the boy's birthday and had come empty handed. But she fished in her purse for a suitable gift. There is some innocuous conversation, though Ms. Buck did get one gem: Assad told her he had become an eye doctor because there was very little blood. She has, since publication of the much-mocked Vogue article, come to recognize the irony of this remark.
Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast, is smart and canny and probably knew just how cringe-inducing Buck’s apologia would be. But it had to have some buzz potential and Brown likes buzz. I for one am delighted that the Beast ran ithe story because I needed something funny to start my day.
When the original piece came out in Vogue, Hillsdale history professor Paul Rahe wrote a piece on why the left loves dictators. Some of it is that the dictators have good public relations firms. I would submit that they love dictators who lean left because they are shallow and ignorant of how evil these people are. I blogged on the Rahe piece, which quoted Benjamin R. Barber, political scientist and Distinguished Fellow at a leftwing policy center called Demo that included this gem:
Syria is governed by old Baathists as Iraq formerly was, but its ruling family has now passed into the hands of the former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma, both of whom are relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans (not exactly Mubarak!). They are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre).
So it wasn’t just Ms. Buck who was duped. Remember, Nancy Pelosi and Brad Pitt made pilgrimages to Syria, too.
Does Hugo Chavez have a chic wife? I am feeling an assignment for Ms. Buck coming on.
This Just In: Foreign correspondent Jonathan Foreman somewhat excuses Ms. Buck for the Assad debacle. Assad had yet to reveal just how murderous he is when she was in Syria. Of course, Buck might have checked with human rights groups and the repressive nature wasn’t exactly a secret. But Syria had its charms:
This affection for Syria under the Assad regime on the part of people who claim to be experts on the Levant is partly a matter of the country’s very real charms for the foreign visitor. Syria boasts magnificent monuments, relatively unspoiled cities, superb food, and a culture with a deserved reputation for hospitality. For the breed of British writer whose politics are founded on aesthetics, a delicious coffee served by a handsome and friendly waiter in a charming café in a beautiful quarter in Damascus is all the proof one needs that Syria is a free and happy country, perfectly content to live under the benign rule of the Assads.
It was simply unlucky timing that Ms. Buck’s piece came out just as Egypt and Tunisia were going up in flames and Arab dictators were becoming distinctly unfashionable.
However, given the lead time, by the time the piece was coming out, things had changed. Vogue editor and Obama bundler Anna Wintour should have known enough to pull the piece. But, in Foreman’s view, there was one person who deserves more blame than Wintour or Buck:
Perhaps the strangest thing is that the one person involved in the story who absolutely should have known better has endured absolutely no criticism at all. He is the celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey, who took the pictures that accompanied the piece. Nachtwey, as was made clear in the 2001 documentary film War Photographer (which followed him to Bosnia and the West Bank), has always presented himself as a chronicler and defender of the underdog. Unlike Buck and Wintour, he cannot claim ignorance as an excuse. For him to go along with and indeed play a role in the celebration of the Assads was surely an act of pure cynicism and greed. Buck may have been taken for a fool and Wintour may have acted like an airhead, but neither but neither was knowingly prostituting their talents to glamorize a killer.