First Lady of Hell

Article excerpt

Byline: Tina Brown

The real story behind a notorious interview.

How did the worldly Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck come to present a rosy profile of the chic wife of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad just months before the Arab Spring? The piece was assigned at the end of 2010, but the uprisings spread--at a speed far faster than the magazine's dinosaur deadlines. When it finally appeared in February 2011 (online) under the lethally embarrassing headline "A Rose in the Desert," supplied by Vogue's editors, Buck found herself in a media flak storm.

To Buck's acute mortification, the "reform-minded" Asma al-Assad's comments about her desire to encourage the Syrian people to engage in "active citizenship" were swiftly followed by her husband's militias slaughtering those same citizens peacefully protesting in Daraa. Just months after Buck told Vogue readers that Mrs. Assad's style is not "the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment," the dictator's wife was exchanging emails (later revealed by The Guardian) with a Paris jeweler for four turquoise and diamond necklaces. Holy moly. Buck suddenly found herself cast in the role of Spun Celebrity Journalist.

Some writers would want to bury this professional debacle. Vogue took that route, turning the lampooned piece into hot contraband by cravenly disappearing the link from its website. But in this issue of Newsweek, Buck admits with wry candor how she was duped by the Syrians and their PR machine.

She describes how after years of drinking the Vogue Kool-Aid she absorbed the ethos of the fashion runway, gulled into equating the Assads' Westernized, cozy coupledom and seemingly enlightened social views with democratic values that extended to the political regime itself. There's a great moment in her Newsweek account when she offers a telling glimpse of the real Mrs. Assad behind the photo ops. At one of the youth centers she opened, Asma upsets a group of teens trying their best to impress her by falsely announcing that the center could soon close due to a lack of funds. …