Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Not Saying Enough to Oprah Lance Armstrong Said It All

Oprah: “Yes or no, did you ever take banned substances.”
Armstrong: “Yes.”
Oprah: “Yes or no, was one of those banned substances EPO?”
Armstrong: “Yes.”
Oprah: “Did you ever …use blood transfusions to enhance your performance?”
Armstrong: “Yes.

Armstrong’s answers were given without hesitation. But when Oprah asked if in his opinion it was humanly possible to win the Tour de France without doping, he paused. The question was  really saying “could anybody have won without doping.” 

Still, it was Armstrong’s opportunity to say “I don’t know if it was possible for anybody else, but I know I could never have won it without doping; I don’t deserve those titles or all the money I won, or all the fame.” But he didn’t say it. The question gave him an out and he took it. His response was that no, it wasn’t possible, in his opinion. 

The rest of the interview was equally disappointing. This is a man who is so removed from emotion that, although he had obviously embraced the idea that he’d done wrong to many people, he didn’t show remorse in a way that truly came from the heart. He was physically very relaxed, which in itself tells everything. Unless he was doped up, of course.

Oprah asked him how he could have sued people who he knew were telling the truth. “What is that?” she said.  Lance’s response was “it’s a guy who …” and listed everything he’d done wrong, but as if he was speaking quite dispassionately about somebody else. Separating himself from his actions.  

I didn’t see the really hard questions coming from Oprah. I saw a woman who made every effort not to judge – which is admirable in somebody of her position, but it’s also her Achilles heel as a interviewer. There were too many indications that Armstrong was using Oprah to manipulate the public into forgiveness. Tough questions needed to be asked relentlessly. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

When Oprah discovered that the book “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t a true autobiography as  author James Frey had claimed on her show she was violently outraged. She had him back and tore him to pieces. Sometime after that she spoke publicly about her shame at how she took her anger out on Frey, and she was right, it was ugly. She set him up and ambushed him in the second interview, which was laden with personal revenge.

I didn’t like what she did and I respected her for apologizing – not just to the public but to the author, in a third interview. For his part he showed real remorse. She didn’t have to elicit it from him, he was already there. He was massively upset at what he’d done. His apology was heartfelt and he took full responsibility, paying back every cent to outraged readers who had bought the book. Watching, I had a real sense of resolution, for Frey and for Oprah. It was beautiful and moving.  

I wasn’t looking for Oprah to shred Lance Armstrong and exact revenge. But I was looking for a strong woman to conduct an interview that either forced Armstrong to tell the truth or admit that he didn’t really want to. And that didn’t happen. 

Armstrong isn’t the same kind of man as Frey who, in any case, didn’t con the world in nearly the same way. I didn’t see real remorse in Armstrong. I saw a man whose body was remarkably relaxed, and who was essentially emotionally disconnected from what he’d done.  If you watched the interview with the sound turned off, it looked like a serious conversation about the weather.

I was disappointed that Oprah didn’t probe. But if Armstrong had come to the interview intending to tell the real truth he would have done it, regardless of the questions. I understand now the cryptic comment Oprah made before she aired the interview that he had “come prepared” and that it was “riveting”.

He came well prepared. To avoid the truth. The riveting part was watching a man detached from his emotions, dissociated from his actions, unable to feel true remorse, controlled by his neurosis. In not saying anything of real importance Armstrong said it all. The thing I'm left with is an image of a grown man trapped in the psyche of a little boy who desparately needs to play hero, who's got massive but skewed entitlement and who never had to be accountable. 

It's a deadly combination, but it evokes profound compassion. And it's the other side of the story, that got exposed by default.