There are popular celebrities, there are unpopular celebrities and then there are the walking dead. You know the walking dead when you see them: they look like Mel Gibson, still striving for drunken charm in an L.A. County mug shot, after getting picked up on a DWI charge that included anti-semitic slurs directed at the police. They look like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, caught in a racist, career-wrecking rant during a stand-up performance in 2007. They look like John Edwards—whose name alone still makes half the country want to throw crockery while the other half just never, ever wants to have to think about him again. (I’ve written about Edwards before: ‘Why We Love to Loathe John Edwards‘)
There is no end to the number of American celebrities who have found themselves in this netherworld, brought low by crime, sex scandal, Wall Street finagling or just plain nuttiness (we’re looking at you, Charlie Sheen). Now, Lance Armstrong has landed in that same low place. The seven-time Tour de France winner—stripped of his titles for using performance-enhancing drugs and exposed as having apparently lied and intimidated others into keeping his secrets—is about to do what so many disgraced figures do, which is to seek redemption through the TV confessional. And Armstrong—who has never done anything by halves—is going straight to the high priestess: Oprah.
Armstrong’s goal, of course, is forgiveness, a public absolution that will allow him to resume his career as a competitive athlete—this time in triathlons—and regain some tarnished measure of his lost good will. Sometimes it works: Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Michael Vick—who ran a dog-fighting ring—managed to bounce back. Eliot Spitzer got a TV gig after frolicking with prostitutes and resigning as governor of New York, and is said to be flirting with a run for public office again. Mark Sanford, who stepped down as South Carolina governor after disappearing to hike the Appalachian Trail in his Argentine mistress’s bed, just announced his candidacy to reclaim the seat he once held in Congress. Even Richards has earned a bit of sympathy and is easing back into the public eye on TV and in web videos.
Other times the reclamation act is hopeless: Gibson is finished, especially after his vile and unhinged phone rants, caught on tape by his estranged wife. O.J. could clear rooms even before he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for a low-rent robbery in 2008; now, mercifully, he seems to be out of sight for good. And as for Edwards? Best for him to stay indoors. Armstrong’s prospects of avoiding their fate depend on a lot of things—some within his control, but some utterly outside them.
For starters, there’s the redemptive power of truth-telling—the big card Armstrong hoped to play by arranging the Oprah sessions. That strategy may turn out to be of limited value to him. Patty Briguglio, CEO of MMI Public Relations in Cary, NC, echos a couple generations of crisis management experts when she counsels, “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.” Unfortunately, she says, “Armstrong didn’t do any of those things.”
That matters. Sanford and Spitzer copped to their misdeeds the second they were caught and they still have at least a pulse as a result. And before you say they had no choice in the matter since there was no denying the allegations, consider that both Edwards and the pants-less Anthony Weiner tried to fudge the truth even when it was too late—with Weiner claiming that his Twitter account had been hacked, which was why that way-too-candid picture of him was making the rounds on the web. Armstrong has reportedly told Oprah that he started doping in the mid 1990s, which means he’s been lying for close to 20 years—and excoriating anyone who dared suggest otherwise. This falls a wee bit short of Briguglio’s “tell it fast” standard.
“This is a long-term betrayal,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone wearing a bracelet for Livestrong [Armstrong’s cancer charity] lately, but I haven’t.”
With the long-term nature of his lies, Armstrong did something else public figures should never, ever do: he made his supporters feel foolish for standing by him. Say what you will about Clinton, no one was surprised when his White House affair was revealed, and while his “I did not have sex with that woman” lie may have caused some of his fan base to peel away forever, most people just rolled their eyes and reckoned that, yes, he probably did have sex with her. When it turned out they were right, they could applaud themselves for their prescience. The same was true in a darker way of Richard Nixon, whom everyone figured would go on to commit some kind of high crime one day. Armstrong’s stubborn denials in the face of all the doping rumors persuaded a lot of his fans to put aside their misgivings and believe him. Now they find he was duping them all along—something they may never forgive.
(From the Magazine: What Makes Us Moral?)
It also doesn’t help Armstrong that the very talent that made him famous and earned him fans—his cycling—now turns out to have been at least partly artificial. Vick’s dog-fighting crimes didn’t change the fact that he was a terrific quarterback, and after he served his prison sentence he found a place on a new team. Martha Stewart may have done time for insider trading, but her recipes still work. Randy Moss, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver and serial misbehaver is similarly the real deal on the field, and that helped him a lot. In a story about Moss just today, The New York Times wrote:
The fact that Moss has survived, the Times argued, is due in no small part “to the fact that his talent was sufficient to buy him multiple chances.” We will never know if Armstrong ever had the talent, thanks to the performance-enhancing drugs he is finally admitting to using.
(From the Magazine: Armstrong’s Ahab)
Finally, it helps to be likable. Clinton’s rascally charm allowed him to perform all manner of PR jujitsu that a lesser pol couldn’t have begun to pull off. Tiger Woods, similarly, has never been short of a sort of agreeable sweetness—and his genuine-seeming contrition after his marital scandal, not to mention his painful unease during the press conferences that followed, bought him a lot of public sympathy. Armstrong, like Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—likely dopers all—has exhibited only defiance and disdain over the years. His Oprah mea culpas might simply not be enough after all this time.
But if there is one very powerful asset Armstrong has that the others don’t, it’s Livestrong. The charity does genuine good, and Armstrong, as a cancer survivor, has earned equally genuine admiration for his decision to devote so much of his time to helping other people battle the disease. “He needs to put every bit of energy he has into Livestrong,” says Briguglio. “That’s his legacy. That’s how he’ll be remembered.”
For a man hooked on competition and the do-what-it-takes ethos that tolerates even cheating, public do-goodism may never have the same thrill as crossing a finish line. But bicycle races and endorsement contracts don’t save lives; Livestrong can. Choose wisely, Lance. We may never love you again, but over time—perhaps a lot of time—we may yet remember how to respect you, even if it’s not for your talent on a bike.