Right now all the news is about Lance Armstrong’s impending confession to illegal doping. Armstrong will make his confession on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and once the episodes finally become public there will be a host of reactions to him: many will berate Lance, some will pretend to be surprised and conflicted by his announcement, and still others won’t find any amount of remorse from him sufficient.
Most of us simply won’t care: not because these charges aren’t important, but because we’ve known all along that he was doping (athletes who aren’t using performance-enhancing drugs, as Lance claimed, generally don’t beat – and repeatedly at that – those who are doping, and that all along has been the burr in the heel of Lance’s 7 Tour de France titles). We stopped paying attention years ago and relegated Lance to the same category as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: we all know you were cheating, and now we’ve got other things to think about.
As far as Lance goes, while he is, like all of us, a complex person, I’m comfortable understanding him in the following terms: you’ve done a lot, probably more than any contemporary celebrity, to bring attention, awareness and funding to cancer research, and no amount of deception or doping can diminish that. None of us watching from the outside “know” you as a person, but based on the way you behave and have been reported to treat others, you seem like a royal asshole, an incorrigible liar, and someone I’d never need to meet in order to live a complete life. As far as the future goes, Americans are always suckers for redemption stories, so here’s hoping you spend the next 30-years of your life doing something that contributes to the public good.
But what interests me more than Lance, and is the real reason I sat down to write this post, is the judge before whom he has chosen to make his admission: Oprah Winfrey. Why, after years of repeated calls for Lance to fess up, has he now decided to kneel before Mama Truth and admit his guilt?
As soon as I heard about this situation my mind went back to James Frey, the author who, nearly 7-years ago to the day, appeared on Oprah’s show where he was wrangled into a terribly awkward public confession for having lied about large chunks of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces (Frey has since dropped the memoirs and begun writing “true” fiction, and his Bright Shiny Morning is a really great read).
What I’m curious about is: Why are public figures making public confessions to Oprah? Why couldn’t Lance just call a press conference, look into the camera and acknowledge his failures? Would such a confession be somehow less-cleansing than the one he’s made before/to Oprah? And why did he choose Oprah over Brian Williams or Bob Costas or Chief Justice John Roberts?
It’s difficult not to see Oprah as our collective American mother: she’ll be stern when needed (Lance, you were a bad puppy! Let me look gravely upon your misdeeds and shake my head in disappointment) but she’ll still ask questions and give gracious commentary that will offer understanding and humanize Armstrong’s missteps (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone), and ultimately she’s cheery enough to maybe give away a couple Honda Civics when it’s all said and done. And those of us glued to the TV will eat every minute of it up.
I don’t mean any of this to bash on Oprah: megalomania aside (who creates a magazine only to put their own picture on its cover every month?!), I think she’s been awesome for women and African-American. I’m simply curious as to how she achieved this priestly role in our culture. Obviously we want her there, but it’ll take someone with a greater understanding of Freud to explain the Why?, and ultimately it’s not really that important to me.
What is intriguing to me is this thought: If Oprah has become the national minister of public misdeeds, the priest-confessor to whom public figures turn to expiate their misconduct, at what point can we expect to see any number of other figures red-eyed and regretful before her? Specifically, if I can allow myself the privilege of listing a few I’d be interested in, when can I hope to see George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney on her show? Each of them is, like Armstrong or Frey, an inveterate liar, and each of them has, unlike Armstrong and Frey, greatly diminished and destroyed our nation’s well-being.
As far as viewership goes—and it is the drama of watching this drama that’s driving all this hullabaloo—I’d tune in for such a show, I really would. I won’t watch Lance’s interview: as I already said, I moved on years ago. It’s become clear that we won’t ever hold these men’s feet to any legal fire for their deceptions, but I’d take some solace in seeing ol’George fumble-fuck a confession on WMD’s and the war in Iraq under Mama Truth’s withering gaze.