Congratulations to brittle newsmatron Barbara Walters on landing a blockbuster exclusive with Syrian madman Bashar Al Assad, who is responsible for the wanton murder of 4,000 of his own men, women, and children. Or as Walters put it, a "mild-mannered ophthalmologist." It's time for her to go.
That's how Walters referred to Assad in her introduction to their interview, portions of which were broadcast this morning on Good Morning America and posted to Yahoo! News. He is a "mild-mannered ophthalmologist" who became "dictator by accident" after his father and brother died. One of her questions for Assad was prefaced with this ludicrous bit of praise: "You were widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader—a doctor whose life was in healing people. Now, sir, much of the world regards you as a dictator and a tyrant. What do you say to that?"
No, Barbara, Assad was always regarded as a dictator and a tyrant. Largely because he was always a dictator and a tyrant. There was never a time when the Assad regime did not have total political and military control of Syria and when his opponents did not cower in fear.
While Walters did confront Assad with evidence of his brutality in the Q-and-A, she approached the encounter like a disappointed peer—Bashar, how could you?—rather than an interrogator granted a rare opportunity to force a world-historical villain to answer for his crimes. Can you imagine any reporter asking, say, Joseph Stalin this question: "Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?" Aside from the fact that the answer is obvious, it actually presupposes that some crackdown was in order.
In her banter with George Stephanopoulos on GMA this morning, Walters was at pains to point out that Assad was not some coarse Middle Eastern strongman: "This man is not like Qaddafi. This man is highly educated, very calm. There's just a whole difference in the way he handles himself." One wonders if the parents Hamza al-Khateeb, the 13-year-old boy Assad's security forces kidnapped, murdered, and mutilated can discern that difference. Brutal is as brutal does.
Why the soft spot for Assad? Perhaps is stems from the fact that Walters vacations with him. In 2008, she traveled to Syria—on vacation, not on assignment for ABC News—to spend time with the Assad and his wife Asma, whom she described at the time as "charming" and "thoughtful." She came back to tell her pals on The View all about it:
From my experience, he was a very intelligent, a well informed, thoughtful, he spoke perfect English, wants very much to have relations with this country, has some solutions for ending the war in Iraq. She was educated in England, worked in this country, speaks English the way I'm talking to you, lovely, intelligent. I don't want you to say- people say "oh you're brainwashed." But that was not it. They just were very charming and intelligent. She has a cooperative, a group teaching children to be entrepreneurs with Harvard University, was raised in England, worked in this country. So this is not what we expected in terms of the leaders.
While I appreciate the cognitive dissonance Walters must have felt in trying to reconcile Assad's gentle lisp and glamorous wife with the unavoidable fact that he was an authoritarian presiding over a country that was in thrall to his family, his subsequent actions reflect rather poorly on her judgment (just like they rendered the Vogue profile Assad's wife shockingly tasteless and sycophantic). The prisons that disfigured and broke al-Khateeb were there when Walters was spending her free time with the Assads. They just weren't as busy as they have been lately.
Walters is 82 years old. The fact that she can't get it up to communicate indignation, or outrage, at as loathsome a creature as Assad—and the fact that she once befriended him, in some sort of bid for international cachet and glamor—is more than enough evidence that it's time for her to step aside and hand the microphone to someone capable of recognizing evil when it invites them to dinner.
[Image via Getty]