Sympathy for the Sympathizer
From the Scrapbook.
Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook admits to a twinge of grudging sympathy for Joan Juliet Buck. Last week the fashion magazine writer published an apologia in Newsweek, “Mrs. Assad Duped Me,” trying to explain why she wrote a fawning and shockingly stupid profile of the Syrian dictator’s wife for Vogue last year. Published only a few weeks before the Syrian uprising started, “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert” was roundly criticized in these pages and elsewhere for its obsequious posture toward a couple that had secured its Vogue-worthy privileged lifestyle by spilling the blood of others. Now Buck is wrestling with her conscience in public, which is to her credit.
President and Mrs. Assad
“I landed in Damascus in the snow late on the night of Dec. 12, 2010,” she writes in Newsweek. “The next day a large woman pulled my toes and cracked my back with indifferent dexterity in the Hammam Amouneh, where the flagstones were worn soft by eight centuries of unbroken use. . . . [I]n 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.”
A spa treatment, an exotic locale, and minute attention to clothing (does anyone else remember, or care, what men’s shoes from the ’80s look like?). It appears that even the chastened Buck cannot help but see a bloody police state as the subject of a potential destination article. She claims now that “she didn’t know she was going to meet a murderer”—meaning Asma’s husband and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad—but that’s absurd. There was plenty of evidence of Assad’s bloodlust before Buck went off to Syria. But it has to be said that those facts were available to all the others, including big-name journalists and American officials, who sought an audience with the Assads, and Buck’s the only one who has come clean.
And that may be why Buck alone is under attack for cozying up to the Assads. The fact is, the others are as guilty, if not more so, than she is. Barbara Walters, Bob Simon, Brian Williams, and Scott Pelley are among the many journalists who flattered Assad for the sake of trying to secure an interview, even as the bloodbath in Syria was under way. But who is calling them to account? As speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi visited Assad in 2007. Yes, that’s well before the body count in Syria ballooned—upwards of 20,000 killed since March 2011—but American intelligence had already made public the fact that the regime in Damascus was facilitating the murder of U.S. troops in Iraq. Apparently, Pelosi’s enthusiasm for a man she, too, knew was a murderer is now just water under the bridge.
There are countless others who deserve to be censured along with Buck. Hacked emails from the Syrian regime show that former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was chummy enough with one of Assad’s advisers that he asked her to host a few of his friends from Washington. But that hardly tarnished the former Clinton administration official’s reputation. Just last week Indyk was invited to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Obama administration’s policy -toward—of all places!—Syria.
Chairing the committee is John Kerry, who for years plumped the Assad regime as a potential U.S. partner in the region, despite its depredations against its own citizens and its hand in killing Lebanese, Iraqis, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans. Kerry, as gullible as the author of celebrity profiles for a fashion magazine, was rumored to have been mesmerized by the charming Asma. And unlike Joan Juliet Buck, the Massachusetts senator will probably pay no reputational price. Although The Scrapbook will do its best to remind people if Obama wins come November, and Kerry is poised to become America’s next secretary of state.
Wallowing in Watergate
The Scrapbook has a morsel of comforting advice for readers. If you want an idea of just how -depressed and panicky the left is feeling these days, consider the following breathless item in the Washington Post’s Style section last week:
Yep, that’s actor Robert Redford and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz in the Washington Post newsroom Tuesday. The pair teamed up with Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bern-stein for a Watergate 40th anniversary Vanity Fair shoot and Discovery documentary executive produced by Redford. We tried to ask Redford and Leibovitz about the projects but . . . they weren’t talking to reporters.
If, like The Scrapbook, you have the feeling that there is something a little, well, 1970s about it all, you’re not alone. Isn’t celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz now fighting her creditors in court? And when was the last time actor Robert Redford acted in anything you can name? We’re delighted to learn that 90-year-old Ben Bradlee can still make the journey to the Post newsroom to be photographed by Leibovitz, and that Woodward and Bernstein will tolerate one another’s company long enough to talk for a Redford/Discovery documentary.
But how many times, over the past 40 years, have magazines such as -Vanity Fair chewed over the Watergate break-in and cover-up, or has television celebrated Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward? The Scrapbook would guess that the answers are in the thousands. And if there is anything new or instructive to be learned on the subject in a glossy text-and-photo spread in Vanity Fair, The Scrapbook would like to know about it. Innumerable forests have already been cleared this year to print the Post’s own serial celebrations of the Watergate anniversary.
Which, when you think about it, is good news for the rest of us. For if, at the end of Barack Obama’s first term, people like Leibovitz and Redford and the editors of the Washington Post are obliged to reach back four decades to cheer themselves up, the present must seem awfully desolate by comparison. It is as if, during the Watergate era, the media had remained obsessed with the Teapot Dome scandal. Wallowing in Watergate (to use Richard Nixon’s famous phrase) may now be taken as evidence that the left hasn’t had much to celebrate in the decades since.
Gore Vidal Postscript
Stop here and do yourself the favor of reading Andrew Ferguson’s essay a few pages hence on the late, unlamented Gore Vidal, to which this is a postscript of sorts.
As Ferguson notes, Vidal’s status as a “literary icon” remains unquestioned in death. But there has been some confusion about his life. The New York Times, in particular, was moved to correct its Vidal obit more than once:
The Scrapbook is guessing, of course, but we’ll bet that this piece of labored and earnest prose outlives most everything that seeped from Gore Vidal’s “poison pen.”
The Scrapbook was long ago disabused of the notion that athletes should be viewed as role models. That said, we always make an exception for the Olympics—with the way things are headed, we take any chance we get to chant “USA! USA!” unironically.
So it is with a heavy heart that we report that Ryan Lochte, the swimmer who is one of the breakout stars of the 2012 games, is something of a cretin. We know this because his own mother said as much. “He goes out on one-night stands,” she told NBC when asked about her son’s romantic eligibility. “He’s not able to give fully to a relationship because he’s always on the go.” A writer at Salon wonders, “Is this Mrs. Lochte’s subtle way of discouraging some distracting, would-be girlfriends from her golden boy, or is this actually a wingman move?”
Unfortunately, our knowledge of Lochte’s love life doesn’t end there. “My last Olympics, I had a girlfriend—big mistake,” Lochte told ESPN magazine, after regaling his interviewer with details of the Dionysiac goings-on in the Olympic Village. “Now I’m single, so London should be really good. I’m excited.” Aside from his caddish attitude, Lochte has a fondness for gaudy fashion and the gem-encrusted mouthpieces favored by rappers known as “grills.” He also recently told NBC’s Ryan Seacrest that he relieves himself in the pools he swims in. It seems the 28-year-old swimmer is not a day over 13 mentally. Still, our grumbling won’t take away from Lochte’s achievements, and we’re guessing that the warnings from his own mother won’t put a dent in Lochte’s London social calendar.
What’s really illuminating about all this is the comparative treatment of Lochte and the athletes that actually do aspire to a higher moral -standard. Earlier this year, AshleyMadison.com—an online dating site that claims to be the “most recognized name in infidelity”—offered a $1 million reward to anyone who could prove they had slept with devout Christian NFL star Tim Tebow. And then there was the furor over hurdler Lolo Jones, who revealed in the runup to the Olympics that she was a virgin. “I’ve seen celebs get teased less for releasing a sex tape,” she said of the mocking coverage.
The final word on all of this belongs to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose career as an Israeli sniper turned psychosexual therapist seems to be a giant Freudian metaphor. Perhaps that gives her some credibility to sort out the Lochte family values: “In Jewish tradition making a match is a mitzvah, a blessing. Mom being wingman for 1 nite stands, not so much,” she wrote on her Twitter feed.
Carnegie Spins in His Grave
That most venerable of American institutions, the public library, has a number of lofty aims: safeguarding and transmitting culture, building an educated populace, providing access to knowledge to all citizens regardless of their material circumstances. The library is also, The Scrapbook is sad to note, where a disconcerting number of citizens go for a rather lower purpose: looking at Internet porn.
Indeed, in recent years, an increasing number of librarygoers nationwide have complained that they (and their children) have been exposed to people viewing obscene material on the computers in their local branches. But fear not—the San Francisco public library system has a solution!
No, no, nothing sensible; the library won’t be blocking any websites or booting patrons who are caught looking at smut. (This is the Bay Area we’re talking about, after all.) Instead, San Francisco’s library system has installed “privacy screens” on 18 public computers in its main branch at Civic Center Plaza, so that patrons can view their porn in peace. This is a test run for what could soon become a citywide policy. (And you can just bet that Portland and other progressive locales won’t be far behind.) San Francisco librarian Luis Herrera explains, “We’re always looking for any kind of elegant solution that strikes a balance between the right to privacy and folks that want to use the library for any other intended purpose.”
Well, elegant isn’t the word The Scrapbook would have used, but then we’re not a librarian. As others have noted, it’s becoming less and less clear these days what the purpose of the public library is. Is it a storehouse of enlightenment, or a warehouse for the indigent? A beacon of cultivation and learning, or just another decaying institution, contributing to the pornification of public spaces? San Francisco has now made its position clear.
Inscribed at the entrance to the Library of Thebes was the simple yet powerful phrase, “Medicine for the soul.” We suggest that the San Francisco libraries install a different inscription at their entrances: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
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