Oprah Winfrey ran the interview, but Lance Armstrong ran the show.
The major disappointment in the first part of Winfrey's "worldwide exclusive" Thursday night was her inability to steer Armstrong in any direction other than the one he wanted to go. She led him to the precipice of some very dark places, yet she allowed him to avoid entering. And what's worse, Armstrong was able to subtly but effectively push across the (extremely disputable) point that he was only participating in a "culture" that was bigger than he was. That was Armstrong's biggest win on Thursday, and Winfrey's biggest loss.
The interview started off very well for Winfrey. Her use of several yes-or-no questions about Armstrong's doping during the Tour de France proved a terrific sound bite. Winfrey elicited a confession from Armstrong, which was the most crucial aspect of the interview. In the first several minutes of the show, Winfrey succeeded admirably.
Yet closed-ended questions (yes or no) quickly became her enemy. Consider this passage:
Winfrey: Was it a big deal do you? Did it feel wrong?
Armstrong: At the time? No.
Winfrey: Not even feel wrong?
Armstrong: No. Scary.
Winfrey: Did you feel bad about it?
Armstrong: No. Even scarier.
Winfrey: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?
Armstrong: No. Scariest.
During this interchange, Armstrong's body language is revealing. He is nodding as he "admits" this to Winfrey. He even smirks. This is not the visage of someone who has lost control of his agenda. Quite the opposite. He looks like he's encouraging his interviewer to keep going in that direction.
Winfrey's problem is something that benefited her early: the yes-or-no questions. They all give Armstrong an easy out. "Did you feel wrong?" elicits "No." That's it. The question isn't immediately followed with an open-ended question such as "Why not?" or "How did you justify it in your mind?" or "How can you consider yourself a winner then?"
Here's an example of Winfrey asking a productive question: "Why now admit it?"
Armstrong's reply: "That's the best question. The most logical question. I don't know that I have a great answer. I will start my answer by saying 'This is too late.'…"
See what he did there? Armstrong sidesteps the actual question by offering another statement. And he follows up that statement by talking about his "ruthless desire to win at all costs." And then (in what is quite honestly a move of genius) he says this desire to win propelled him through both his cancer treatment and his cycling career.
Winfrey could have simply repeated the question: "Why now?" But she doesn't. Armstrong leads her deftly in a different direction, like a pickpocket pointing to a distraction while he reaches into a suit jacket.
And that different direction only enhances Armstrong's self-perception. He wins at all costs. How can you possibly blame him for that? He was a cancer survivor who couldn't shake this habit of succeeding. Poor guy.
The most extreme example of this came when Armstrong told Winfrey he looked up the definition of "cheating." Then Winfrey allowed her subject to define cheating as using an advantage others don't have. Armstrong insists that he did not believe he was cheating in that sense, which again goes to his agenda of putting himself in the "everyone-was-doing-it" category.
Winfrey has all she needs at this point to draw Armstrong into trouble:
"Why were you looking up the definition of cheating," she could have asked, "if you didn't feel you were doing anything wrong?"
That response, had he given it, may have forced Armstrong to confront his tendency to look for loopholes. It may have revealed him as someone who is still trying to game the system – as someone who is not remorseful at all.
Sadly, we didn't see Armstrong squirm.
There were other instances of this. Winfrey smartly asks when Armstrong started using drugs – a huge moment because that's when the big lie began – but we never get a straight answer. Winfrey mentions Tyler Hamilton's book, "The Secret Race," which forcefully argues that Armstrong had the best of drugs and the best of plans to make the playing field as lopsided in his favor as possible. Hamilton's book blows up Armstrong's crutch argument that the "culture" isn't his responsibility (even though Armstrong was the culture). Armstrong tells Winfrey he didn't read the book.
Yet he did read the USADA report. Why one and not the other? We never find out.
Many of those who watched the interview feel Armstrong came off as a jerk. Doesn't that mean Winfrey did well? Not really. Armstrong is very comfortable with his "jerk" label. He relishes it. He likes being "flawed" because he feels this flaw is actually a wonderful asset. He even credits his mother for being a fighter. He wants to be like her. In one part of the interview, Winfrey says fame reveals extremes in one's character. It makes jerks into bigger jerks, she says, and humanitarians into bigger humanitarians.
Armstrong seizes on that. To him, they are not polar opposites. To him, they are exactly the same. To him, he is a fighter, and that's noble because he's battling for his life and encouraging others to do the same. Those who don't (including certain teammates) are weak. The worst thing you can be if you're Lance Armstrong is weak.
And in this interview, Armstrong never appears weak. He never has to face the ugly truth that he's been weak for years. Even if you watch the interview with the sound off, you see a man expressing strength and control from beginning to end.
Armstrong confessed. Winfrey deserves credit for getting the interview and the admission. But make no mistake: Armstrong won this round with ease.
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