Lance Armstrong is not sorry. I mean, I have not yet seen his interview with Oprah Winfrey, to air tonight and tomorrow like a supersized miniseries of shame. I’m sure there are dramatic moments. I am told he cries. And I’m not a mind-reader: maybe he’s sorry he got caught, or sorry he felt he had to cheat, or sorry he took certain aggressive steps to try to save his sorry self from getting caught.
Whatever. None of that, and nothing I could imagine Armstrong saying, meets any non-laughable moral definition of “sorry.” Sorry is not a famous, powerful man deciding belatedly to do the right thing in order to limit his losses.
It’s not the doping that bothers me so much; I’ve written before about our society’s hypocrisy about “performance enhancement.” It’s that Armstrong not only cheated but lied about it, not only lied about it but reportedly pressured others into it, not only pressured others but bullied people, using his fame and power to decry and sue people for saying what, it turns out, was the truth.
But more important: who cares whether Lance Armstrong is truly sorry? Or whether I think he’s sorry? Or whether you do?
At some point in the history of these confessional interviews–Charlie Sheen, James Frey, and on and on back into the mists of disgrace–we’ve decided that the main purpose of these sitdown talks is the public display of contrition. You can blame the media in part, for selling high-profile interviews like this as primetime tearjerking personal dramas, and the interviewees and their consultants, for using this dynamic to their advantage.
So the interview becomes a performance. Did he turn things around? Did he seem sincere? Did he start to rehabilitate his image? Let’s ask a body-language expert!
But when we frame the sleazebag-apologia interview as mainly a p.r. exercise in showing remorse and winning redemption, the sleazebag has already won. Because it puts the interview on the friendlier, subjective ground of emotion and performance, which can be finessed and spun. It becomes like landing a difficult triple axel: if he pulls it off, it’s a success.
Here’s a crazy idea: an interview like Armstrong’s is not about eliciting a performance. It’s about getting information. There are plenty of facts one could hope for from Oprah’s interview beyond Armstrong admitting what we all already knew–that, again, is just performance, not disclosure. But how did he pull off the deception? Who knew? Who helped him? And what about the people he disparaged, and worse, for telling the truth? (The New York Times this morning has a good list of potential questions, though the interview has already been taped.)
If Armstrong tears up while answering these questions, that’s his business. It’s also irrelevant. You can forgive him, or not. At this point in the story, Armstrong should tell everything, because it’s the minimally decent thing to do. And in exchange, he should expect–nothing: not a legal deal, or limited financial losses, or redemption.
But I doubt Armstrong agreed to the interview expecting nothing. If history–his and others’–is any guide, his answers will be influenced and circumscribed by legal and p.r. limitations. Which is his prerogative. But every answer Armstrong gives short of complete, unambiguous and unconditional disclosure will only be further proof of how sorry he isn’t.