The process of public contrition is by now yawningly familiar: Comfortably seated in front of cameras, the high priestess of the mea culpa faces the penitent. Armstrong, stoic and chiseled, agrees to terms of engagement, his reflexive grin/grimace a foreshadowing of the little deaths to come.
Remotes to the ready, America prepares to watch and judge.
This is familiar turf for Oprah, America’s First Interrogator — often having previously been First Endorser. She once sang the praises of James Frey, who fabricated most of his drug-abuse autobiography, “A Million Little Pieces,” and then had to call him back to the couch to hash out his deception.
Now, having once been a champion of Armstrong, urging Americans to wear his yellow gel “Livestrong” bracelet in solidarity with the cancer survivor/champion, it is Armstrong’s turn to explain himself.
Did he dope? Yes. Did he boost his blood with EPO? Yes. Did he lie, betray and bully? Yes, all that.
Did he feel guilty? Not really.
Guilt without shame.
Did it feel wrong at the time? No. “Scary,” he says.
“Did you feel bad about it?” No.
This is not sounding much like contrition because, well, it isn’t. Matter-of-factly, Armstrong tells Oprah that he was just leveling the playing field, doing what was necessary to compete in a sport where doping apparently was widespread. Indeed, some familiar with the field argue that, if all had cycled clean, Armstrong still would have won.
This is of no consolation to those who feel betrayed or who have been bullied by Armstrong through the years. Of all his sins, Armstrong’s persistent bullying toward any who questioned his drug use — often suing them, successfully — seems to be the most unforgivable.
The doping might shatter dreams and myths, but the lying breaks hearts.
In thinking through the events of the past several years, one would like to imagine that Armstrong accidentally fell into a hole from which he could not emerge. Protecting the myth to advance the greater good was perhaps the more compelling imperative. Toward this end, one could perhaps self-justify.
Finally caught, he had no recourse. Admission is not so noble or virtuous when the facts are unavoidable. There’s nothing left to do but say, yes, I did it. Confession — authentic confession — is something else, involving heartfelt remorse. And so we watch Armstrong in search of that thing we recognize as sincere contrition — and it doesn’t seem to be there.
During his interview with Oprah, Armstrong said the problem was his 2009 comeback. If he hadn’t come back, he probably wouldn’t have been caught.
“Do you regret now coming back?” Oprah asked.
“We wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t come back,” he said.
It isn’t necessary that Armstrong publicly weep, but this sounds an awful lot like “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt,” instead of “I’m sorry I hurt you.” Rather than owning up, the perpetrator shifts blame to the person aggrieved. Armstrong isn’t sorry for what he did; he seems sorry he got caught.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is all the man has left. We spectators tend through these repetitions to honor a template for public cleansings, whether for grief or guilt. In the latter case, everyone must touch the stations of the cross on their road to redemption: Invoke one’s faith, shed a tear, bite the lower lip, enter rehab, and so on.
Even when all this is properly executed, do we really trust the penitent? Or is it simply a requisite ritual?
Armstrong, though he accepted Oprah’s invitation, declined our kind invitation to fall to his knees. Nor did he ask for pity — or offer excuses or names. He refused to play snitch and, apparently, has no well-crafted strategy for redemption. He’s simply saying he did it.
Perhaps it is a mistake to judge a person’s sincerity by affect. We all grieve in different ways; perhaps, too, we experience guilt and shame in our own way.
Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, his Olympic medal, ousted by the foundation he created and facing multiple lawsuits, Armstrong has fallen just about as far as one can. It seems enough.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.