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Joan Juliet Buck’s Second Mistake

Profiler of Asma al-Assad gets “duped” by Tina Brown

Adam Chandler
July 31, 2012
(Vogue website)

(Vogue website)

If you want to read Joan Juliet Buck’s now-infamous 2011 Vogue profile of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad, probably the easiest way to view it–since Vogue has taken the profile down–is by visiting (Don’t worry, it’s not a government site, it’s just some Assad fan site by an adoring Syrian “journalist.”)

The Vogue profile is called, quite dreamily, “A Rose in the Desert.” At this point, you probably needn’t bother reading it, if you haven’t already. Here are some of the more interesting facts from the profile: Asma al-Assad drives her own car. “Apart from Chanel agates around her neck,” Asma al-Assad wears no watch, no jewelry, and no wedding ring. Also, the profile mentions that Bashar al-Assad decided to become an ophthalmologist “because it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.”

The story of Joan Juliet Buck has a new chapter. On the Daily Beast, Buck is back, writing the post-modern post-script to her tale of unintentional whitewash, saying she “was duped” by Asma al-Assad. Buck explains that she had been reluctant the whole time but an editor seduced her. Sure, she knew, Bashar al-Assad’s father had killed 20,000 of his own people in Hama in the 1980s, that Damascus was “home base to Hizballah and Hamas,” and that Assad and Hizbollah had been implicated in the car-bombing of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. But Conde Nast Traveller was extolling Syria’s “increasing hipness.”

“It was the Soviet Union with hummus and water pipes.”

You can forgive Buck for making the same mistake that plenty of people made about the Assads, who have now overseen mass murder and the widespread torture of children. From Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters to Martin Indyk and Bob Simon, plenty of other notables gave them cover, platforms, or the benefit of the doubt and still managed to stay in their perches once they were proven wrong. Even Vogue, who let Buck take the fall and didn’t renew her contract, is not suffering.

Everyone else managed to escape perhaps because they didn’t talk about it. And since Buck did not get away with it, she is now scrambling to explain the unexplainable. (According to her Daily Beast bio, Buck is also peddling a memoir). The thoughtful look back in the Daily Beast at the affair that ultimately cost Buck her job certainly humanizes her, even if it doesn’t excuse her for not thinking twice or fighting the Christian impulse of all the fashionable ones to dress up something ugly.

That said, it’s not easy to forgive her for sentences like this:

Sheherazade took me through Damascus; in the dark early-evening streets, I felt uneasy. Mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters.

This is from a self-declared Jewish writer who walked through the abandoned Jewish quarter in Damascus with Asma al-Assad and gave something of a verbal shrug in her story. Most tragically of all, from reading Buck’s explanation now, it just seems as if she’s being used again, this time by Tina Brown. The result is a pretty weak defense.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.