In the celebrity PR playbook, making a trip to Oprah is not always something to be proud of. Visiting ‘O’ usually means you’ve gone off the rails of public appropriateness, made an arse of yourself and you’re seeking absolution, a springboard for a second act if you will.
Oprah’s “magic touch” has a great track record, but considering the cloud of scandal and half-truths encircling Lance, not to mention a fierce public and media backlash, what’s left for the 41-year-old former cycling mega star after his two-part performance last week? Having an Oprah “moment,” is no guarantee of a successful second act.
No jumping on the sofa
Although there was no sofa-jumping by Lance, the Twitterverse was abuzz with comments when he finally fessed up about his doping to Oprah. Yet the millions of Oprah viewers, media commentators and some of his former teammates felt that he glossed over bullying them into doping as well -- most likely to minimize legal repercussions. He was evasive at best. Most of all, he lacked a deep sense of regret -- a must for any celebrity going into public rehab and looking to come out clean on the other side.
Then of course, there’s the added irony of whether Oprah’s struggling network and her stardom didn’t overshadow the story she was trying to tell. Already many have said that Oprah’s breaking of this story was critical to OWN viewership and revenue. It makes sense, two parties each struggling for a different kind of attention.
But back to Lance. I’ve written about him before. In September 2012, I analyzed an arresting pose the athlete struck, which was featured in a Businessweek article. Armstrong's ambiguous body language spoke volumes. With his blues eyes off in a stare, his arms and his hands formed the "V" symbol. Whether he was implying ‘"victory" or "peace" was up for debate. It was also eerily reminiscent of Nixon’s infamous helicopter pose. Around the same time, bellicose language from a defiant Lance -- likely written by his PR team -- may have tipped the scales to the former ‘"V."
“Over the past three years, I have been subjected to a two-year federal criminal investigation followed by Travis Tygart's (USADA’s CEO) unconstitutional witch hunt,” read a portion of his August 23 statemen. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today -- finished with this nonsense.”
Replacing symbols with substance
Now we know the above statement was nonsense, not the doping investigation. Faced with the realities of personal and professional oblivion (Armstrong stepped down as chairman from his cancer fighting nonprofit, Livestrong in October ‘12) Lance is seeking peace and reconciliation. And he chose Oprah and her struggling OWN network to be the dove deliverer in owning up to his mistakes.
I am reminded of the Nixon parallel. It's been 39 years since the 37th American president resigned from office. Earlier this month some 400 of his friends, family and supporters gathered in Washington DC, to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. Hosted by the Nixon Foundation, the event served as rallying point in the group’s efforts to improve Nixon's image.
While many Americans still rank him as one of the all-time worst presidents, politicians from both parties continue praising his accomplishments. On his death in 1994, President Clinton spoke of “his desire to give something back to this world.” "No less than a month before his passing, he was still in touch with me about the great issues of the day," he said.
Lance Armstrong doesn’t have to worry about the great issues of today. He only has to worry about the great issue of the moment: can Armstrong go on from here?
But not through strong-arm tactics or a defiant stance. If he wants a second act, Lance must throw himself quietly into the causes he still cares about most: cycling and cancer research. Then, over time, the media and public will lose interest. Who knows? There could be Lance “check-ins” as anniversaries approach: one year since his partial admission of guilt, 25 years since his departure from professional cycling, his 50th birthday and eventually his death.
As with many fallen icons, he will learn the hard way that life’s second half is where the true measure of a person’s strength, courage and determination finally becomes clear.
Your finish line has many miles to go.