Listening to the side commentary about Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I was struck by the tone of mystery around his decision to “come clean” on Oprah’s show.
Sports journalists opined that if Armstrong wanted to genuinely confess and clear his conscience, he would have called a live press conference rather than conduct an interview that would be taped in advance of the broadcast.
Others felt that an honest apology should have been orchestrated with the sports community, not on a talk show that emphasized human drama as entertainment.
One person who was nearly to print with a biography of Armstrong, now held at the presses pending the composition of additional chapters to reflect the recent turn of events, said that Armstrong didn’t care about money, that he was doing this interview so that he might receive leniency from the sports world, allowing him to return to competition. She said that Lance’s primary driver was just that, competition.
Finally, another commentator said that while Armstrong may be worth an estimated $125 million, he has many lawsuits pending from former sponsors and various agencies that could significantly erode that wealth, and that a confession would remove any possible defense he might put up to avoid large settlement costs, even possibly jail time for perjury.
To me, all of these perspectives miss the glaringly obvious, which is that there are two ways to achieve financial gain in the world of celebrities. One is to become famous, and then trade on that public recognition as a medium through which businesses can promote their products and services. The other route is to become infamous, and do the same thing.
There are many examples of both, and a common transformation is when the famous become infamous without intending to, yet recognize that name recognition is valuable, whether it is for the good one has done, or the bad.
I don’t believe for a second that Armstrong cares nothing about money. If that were true, he would have foregone all those sponsorship opportunities that netted him many millions.
He would have donated his celebrity to non-profit organizations exclusively. Armstrong is following the venerable path of many people who have carved the model before him, which is to trade on one’s celebrity even though the reason for that notoriety is that he has gone from hero to villain.
To name just a few such examples, we can point to G. Gordon Liddy (Watergate), evangelist Ted Haggard, Bill Clinton, former San Diego Mayor Rodger Hedgecock, Mike Tyson, David Letterman, junk bond king Michael Milken and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has a new movie out).
Each of these former heroes now make a living with their books, public speaking, paid endorsements, radio programs, consulting work, theatrical involvement, etc. I’m waiting for John Edwards to come out with a line of hair care products and David Petraeus to launch a dating website.
But back to Mr. Armstrong.
He chose Winfrey’s show because, I would bet, he is being paid nicely for the event, which was of course a highly rated seminal television event, watched the world over, commanding high prices from show sponsors. Also, since it was taped, I’ll bet he negotiated editorial rights over what gets finally aired.
And he leaves the door open for future public exposure, with mysterious hints that weren’t answered in the interview. That’s a venerable tradition in keeping an audience hooked.
A deeper question is, why do we find ourselves enthralled with the story of the fallen hero? It’s a plot line that goes back many centuries, to the Greek tragedies and probably before that in folk tales told around nomadic camp fires. I think it’s because we need to believe in heroic acts, to think that we are capable of such self-sacrifice. And we are anxiously, intently interested in the fallen hero, because it confirms our experience that heroes are flawed humans.
But true heroes do indeed exist. They seldom get public recognition, however, because unless there’s a medium nearby to broadcast the behavior, true heroes don’t go looking for the celebrity. The heroes who are held up as iconographic representations of human nobility are often just people who construct a suitable screen upon which the public can project its needed heroic imagery.
We want to have heroes so that we can feel inspired, hopeful and safe. And we’re willing to pay for that illusion. Armstrong was quite willing to provide the service, for a small fee.
A dozen years ago, I and a small group of people spent 16 days climbing Mount Acongagua in Argentina, the highest peak outside the Himalayas, just under 23,000 feet in elevation. Half of us made the summit, barely able to think as we stumbled onto the peak.
One of the climbers handed me a scrap of paper with a poem written on it, which he had written just before we set out from the trail head many days before. The last line rings often in my memory, as I see daily the heroic actions of people who never seek attention, from parents to neighbors to soldiers to teachers to volunteers to children.
“There are no angels except ourselves, and the only heroes we see are looking out through each other’s eyes.”