Joan Juliet Buck’s muddled mea culpa over Asma al-Assad profile

When Joan Juliet Buck was asked to profile Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad for Vogue’s March 2011 Power Issue, her initial response was: “Absolutely not,” she explains in her explanatory mea culpa on The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.”

That reason proved to be a feeble deterrent. Instead Buck buckled under the glitzy gavel of Vogue and took the assignment. Then, she displayed a staggering amount of moral blindness and naiveté by glamorizing the Assads’ monstrous regime, which led to a humiliating retraction by Vogue and the severing of her nearly four-decade tie to the magazine. Now, in a plain-spoken postscript she is trying to explain her piddling judgment.

To her credit, “There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had,” she writes retrospectively, “and torture tens of thousands more, many of them children.”

But she did know about his father, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who crushed a 1982 Sunni Muslim uprising known as the Hama Massacre, by reportedly slaying 20,000 men, women and children. She did not consider any of the cliches about fathers and sons, or their real expressions in history, by even attempting to report beyond the bubble the Assads presented to her. (And Buck was not as clueless as she’d have us believe: when she was told by an Assad aide not to speak to the French ambassador about “what was really going on in Syria”, her withering retort was “You can’t talk to me that way.” Afterwards, she never followed up.) 

Buck, a former editor in chief of French Vogue was right to initially suggest that the magazine send a political reporter for this assignment. Someone who might pay more attention to their surroundings than Asma al-Assad’s choice of slacks. But instead, Buck bucked another prescient cliche: Curiosity killed the cat.

“It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer,” she explains. “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.”

Her candor is appreciated but comes a little late. Buck claims Vogue asked her not to talk about the debacle, which she honored until she was dishonored by getting fired.

Her mea culpa is a vexing read since it attempts to exonerate her but really makes her seem shallow. And not quite curious enough. Pondering the 17-month and counting Syrian revolt, she admits wondering if her Rose In The Desert has struggled with her husband’s command for carnage: “I wondered if [first lady Asma] was drugged, compliant, indifferent, complicit.”

She didn’t wonder about their relationship when they were right in front of her, whimsically whipping up fondue for the kids?

The most curious aspect of Buck’s postscript is that she inadvertently reveals the best inquisitors of her reporting trip: the disadvantaged children she visited at Massar, one of Asma’s pet-cause youth centers.

“They wanted to know everything about New York,” she writes. “And movies.”