Barbara Walters Summoned to Syria | Is Madonna Being Sabotaged? | Just When Did Anne Hathaway Get Smart? | No Vienna for Mel; Lionel Richie’s Show Not So; Newman’s Own Fight

Barbara Walters Summoned to Syria

Barbara Walters is going to Syria on a diplomatic mission — unofficially, of course.

Walters, in a transcript from her most recent Sirius radio show, says she’s been summoned to the Middle Eastern hot spot by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. She acknowledged that it’s a "terrorist country."

This little bit of information came right before she interviewed comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks.

"The president does not want to do an interview, he would just like to have a private meeting. I’m not sure I know why," Walters tells her producer, Bill Geddie.

Al-Assad was named No. 10 on the "World’s Worst Dictator" list by Parade magazine in 2007, up from No. 16 the year before.

Its description: "Bashar al-Assad gradually has assumed greater control of the military and intelligence services. Recently, his administration was implicated in assassinations in Lebanon. A U.N. report, due in June, will detail Syria’s role. Assad is perhaps the unlikeliest of dictators: He was doing postgraduate work in ophthalmology in London when his late father, Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Assad, summoned him home in 1994 and began training him to run the country."

The Walters radio show transcript was provided by Sirius. And, no, it’s not common for members of the press to have private meetings with the presidents of other countries, especially those countries thought to house terrorists.

But Walters, who works for the entertainment division of ABC, often has idealized herself as a member of the State Department and the Fourth Estate. For example, in 1987 Walters passed papers from an Iranian arms dealer to President Ronald Reagan concerning Lt. Col. Oliver North’s participation in the Iran-Contra affair.

Walters on her invitation to visit Syria:

BILL GEDDIE: You're going to Syria.

BARBARA WALTERS: Yes.

GEDDIE: Why are you going to Syria? I mean ... I hear ... Turks and Caicos is nice this time of year. Why Syria?

WALTERS: I grant you, it's a rather odd place to be going ... and especially because it is considered by the United States to be a terrorist country. I've been there before. I was invited several years ago by the wife of the president of Syria, President Assad. His wife, by the way, was raised in England and speaks better English than I do.

The president of Syria invited me. I know the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations. The president does not want to do an interview, but he would like a private meeting. I'm not sure I know why...

GEDDIE: It's like you're going there ... you don't know what he wants to talk to you about?

WALTERS: Well, I will find out. I went to meet his wife. I didn't know what she wanted to talk about. I will pay my respects. I'm going with a friend and I want to see some of the wonderful Roman ruins because Syria has some of the great ruins in the world.

Is Madonna Being Sabotaged?

I often criticize Madonna in this space for her nutty politics and her membership in Kabbalah.

But there’s one thing you can’t beat and that’s Madonna live and in person.

So let’s clear up reports from Tuesday that her big fall tour isn’t selling out. With the sole exception of Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, the Sweet and Sticky tour, I am told, will outpace Madonna’s last tour significantly.

Indeed, Dodger Stadium is the only venue Madonna hasn’t sold out. Of course, the show isn’t for five months. The fact that she’s sold half the stadium now for November is pretty darn impressive.

So where did this bad news come from? Warner M. Group, which lost Madonna to Live Nation, has been on a tear planting negative stories about the latter organization.

WMG, as I predicted, has done little to nothing to promote Madonna’s "Hard Candy" album as retribution for her exit to Live Nation. That a CD with a hit single, the Justin Timberlake-Michael Jackson sound-alike duet "4 Minutes to Save the World," has sold only 500,000 copies is an utter disgrace. But WMG only has itself to blame.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict this. WMG has just this and a greatest hits album left with Madonna, and then she’s gone. Her departure is a huge embarrassment to the ailing, much-mocked record company.

But here’s what’s better: I’m told Live Nation is on the brink of cutting a similar deal with WMG’s act Nickelback. Nickelback, which has hits like "The Reason" and "Photograph," is a contemporary hit-maker act, a rarity these days. Grabbing them from WMG could be Live Nation’s coup de grace.

Live Nation is also rumored to be making deals with Epic Records star Shakira for concerts and CDs. Is it happening? Well, hips don’t lie.

But Live Nation did not do the deal with the Rolling Stones that I long ago exclusively reported on. In the end, I’m told, it made more sense for Live Nation to keep putting on Stones concerts. But album-wise, the group is not a big seller. It's likely to continue doing one-off deals with Interscope, which did such a good job with the "Shine a Light" soundtrack.

As for Madonna, we needn’t worry about her or Live Nation. She’s already sold out four shows at the Garden and out in New Jersey at what used to be the Continental Airlines Arena — now the Izod Arena. She’s also sold out most of her venues in Europe. And Dodger Stadium? Those Angelenos are just mellow. They’ll get to it in time.

Meanwhile, a better question to ask is why can’t WMG cough up a follow-up single to "4 Minutes"? That is, assuming they would want to. "Hard Candy" is full of candidates such as "Miles Away" and "Give It to Me."

But WMG hasn’t had made a move. By contrast, Mariah Carey — whose sales have outpaced Madonna’s considerably — is already on her third single from her contemporaneous release, "E=MC2."

Just When Did Anne Hathaway Get Smart?

The saga of Rafael Follieri, 29, came to a head Tuesday when the Italian alleged conman was arrested and charged with fraud and money laundering.

Follieri’s story as it unfolds is like a modern day "Da Vinci Code," involving the Catholic Church, the Vatican and organizations connected to them.

It also resonates like a story we were telling eight years ago: that of convicted conman Dana Giacchetto, who ensnared the rich and famous in a web of lies. It has all the earmarks: a swindle of the highest level by a guy who lived high on the hog and eventually came crashing down.

Follieri’s trials are so severe that they threatened to take down his girlfriend, movie star Anne Hathaway. With a big movie about to open called "Get Smart," Hathaway suddenly announced last week that she’d broken up with Follieri. This was in anticipation, obviously, of Follieri’s arrest. Distancing herself from the bad publicity was a smart thing to do.

But merely breaking up with Follieri may not be enough. Hathaway was right at Follieri’s side for the whole ride. She undoubtedly knows where some of the bodies are buried. The federal indictment follows a previous lawsuit from Ron Burkle (which was settled) citing Follieri’s misappropriation of funds so he could party all over the world with her.

According to filings and news reports, Burkle invested $55 million in Follieri’s scheme to buy abandoned properties of the Roman Catholic Church. In a New York Times piece from Dec. 24, 2007, it’s noted that Burkle sued when he realized his money was going to underwrite Follieri’s amazing lifestyle. The trick now is to present Hathaway as clueless about all this even as she benefited from it.

No Vienna for Mel; Lionel Richie’s Show Not So; Newman's Own Fight

His wonderful musical "The Producers" is opening in Vienna this weekend, but Mel Brooks isn’t going to the premiere. "I’m scared!" he joked about the scenario.

After all, the centerpiece of the show is "Springtime for Hitler" and the whole show is a send-up of the Nazis. Austria was, shall we say, sympathetic to the cause back in the day. How will the Viennese take to the show? We’ll have to wait and get a report from the show’s co-writer, Tom Meehan, who’s venturing over there nonetheless. …

More on that July 5 Lionel Richie concert in the Hamptons: Even though promoter Joe Meli has told people he has Richie and that tickets will be sold for $1,250, there is some dispute about it. Surprise! Turns out Lionel — according to his peeps — has another gig for which he’s contracted. Meli is either mistaken or Nicole Richie is the one who’s coming. Shades of last year when Meli helped Edgar Bronfman Jr. lose millions. Stay tuned, because this should get interesting. …

Meanwhile, I am told that a legit group is getting together a bunch of fundraisers in August for the Ross School in the Hamptons. This is the top-notch private school founded by Courtney Sale Ross with her inheritance from her late beloved husband, Steve Ross, founder of Warner Communications, now known as Time Warner. …

Paul Newman is fighting his lung cancer with the latest medical advances, sources say. The latest report I’ve received says Newman has been participating in a 30-day stem cell program at a hospital in the New York tri-state area. Patients in the program are treated in-house, although from a picture seen over the weekend it seems Newman may be allowed to visit his New York apartment. The stem cell treatment is cutting-edge and could be the thing that saves Newman’s life, insiders say. Everyone in the world is rooting for Paul Newman. ...

And happy rockin’ birthday to Carly Simon, who turns 63 Wednesday and has never looked or sounded better! Why’s that? She hasn’t got time for the pain! And what a day, anyway: Legendary director Sidney Lumet turns 84, so rent or buy "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead," his overlooked masterpiece from last year. And Timmy’s mom, June Lockhart, of "Lassie" and "Lost in Space" fame, is 83. ...