One of the easily missed moments in the Oprah Winfrey interview of Lance Armstrong came early last night (the first of two parts) on a program called “Oprah’s Next Chapter.” Winfrey cited the words of an anti-doping official who called Armstrong’s activities with the US Postal Service team ”the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” On paper, it’s an ambiguous statement. Read it aloud putting the emphasis on “that” and it’s a claim confined to the world of cycling. Winfrey read it that way and even inserted an extra word to reinforce that impression. Armstrong, in the course of responding, gently but firmly corrected the sense of the quote. It’s a sentence you read with emphasis on the word “sport,” he asserted. He then denied the truth of the quote, but that little nudge of correction told a bigger story.
Deception is it own accomplishment. To be a damned elusive Pimpernel, to fool most of the people all the time, to be one smart rabbit leading the watchdogs of your profession on a merry chase….that takes something special. It takes nerve and cunning that’s entirely separate from the skill and determination essential to win that big French race. I think he’s still a little bit proud of that.
It’s an odd piece of television. It unfolds just as the American public is transfixed by an entirely different sports scandal, the “catfishing” of Manti Te’o. It was recorded just a little bit too early for the participants to know that. And yet there are moments that suggest a parallelism. Armstrong talks about a momentum, suggesting, I think, the way his success and the lies behind it clumped magnetically together and began rolling forward very fast, with the illusion of unstoppability. This may eventually be an insight into Te’o too.
The interview is also a little odd technically. The set is austere, as these things go. The chairs are more appropriate for a deposition witness than an honored guest. The setting more closely resembles a Marriott mid-grade room than anything else. And then there’s the mic. Armstrong is wearing a lav mic that seems misplaced on his clothes and cranked up high, so that every fidget, every rustle sounds like someone shaking a box of muesli in the background. Armstrong fidgets a lot, and the auditory effect is subliminally damning. I thought at first it was an accident, but then, the interview is edited. They could have stopped any time and fixed it. So now I wonder.
The giant, implicit question arising in this interview is one raised artfully in a different context – Kathryn Schulz’s recent essay on self-help.
Let us call it the master theory of self-help. It goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.
Armstrong’s current presentation of self is predicated on this notion: that there are at minimum two Lance-selves and that the better of them is currently in control and kicking the ass of the lesser Lance (which Oprah sometimes calls “your jerk-self.”) As we watch the interview, we either accept or reject that premise. Paradoxically, “integrity” (in its holistic sense) is Armstrong’s worst enemy right here. The more that his current self seems to be “all of a piece” with his former self, the worse things will go for him. My own subjective impression is that things will not go well. Armstrong is not persuasive in suggesting this necessary pseudo-schizoid break with his old self. He has not achieved bifurcation. He seems like the same old guy with a different story to tell. That’s not the swill we feed on. We like a different flavor of slop.
There is, of course, a sense in which these two public figured are briefly conjoined. OWN is not what Winfrey hoped it would be. The commercial breaks assume that we know about and will watch even more avidly shows such as “Iyanla Fix My Life.” We’ll see.
* words Amstrong used to describe himself in the interview