There’s a saying: there’s only one political party in America and it’s The Incumbent Party. Once you’re in, no matter how incompetent or corrupt, so long as you didn’t murder somebody or have sex with a minor, you’re in for life. It figures at all levels of politics, from the smallest town council all the way to the Senate. Once people are in, it’s hard to get them out. And even when they’re resoundingly voted out of office, shown to be flagitious or idiotic or both, chances are, the dumb crook gets a job as a lobbyist or in a think tank or on the board of a corporation. Just look at all the people who were wrong on the Iraq war; they still have jobs, well paying jobs at that. Trillions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost, and they pay no penalty—they’re even still advising presidential candidates.
I was thinking of this when Oprah Winfrey started interviewing Lance Armstrong. The moment Lance refused to comment on what happened in his hospital room in 1996, the interview should have ended. Oprah promised “no holds barred,” and yet she didn’t press him. If she was good to her word, she should have ended the interview right there. But the alleged interview rules weren’t rules: they were a carrot for the viewer. Her job was to ask and move on.
Several mouthpieces of the champagne room set have already weighed in on Lance Armstrong. Sally Jenkins, the co-author of his memoirs, writes, “Lance Armstrong is a good man. There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that.” Murder. Buzz Bissinger played both the toady and the righteous fool. Rick Reilly, who lathered the love on Lance for over a decade from his prominent chairs at Sports Illustrated and ESPN is angry. What neither Bissinger nor Reilly care to mention is that, as fellow members of the Incumbent Party, they never bothered to do any real research before pronouncing him cleaner than the fallen snow. For them, because Lance Armstrong was one of them, and they’re so good at being able to read their own, all the research they needed was to ask the guy. And whatever he said, that must be the truth. This must be why Bissinger won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and why Reilly was voted the NSSA Sportswriter of the year eleven times. Jenkins was only nominated for a Pulitzer.
This chat with Oprah an interview so much as it was rollout. Oprah demonstrating relevance; Lance recalibrating his image for the future. Lance 3.0. Lance long ago joined the Incumbent Party and as such Oprah had no place to go hard on him. Not like James Frey. He was merely a nobody who turned fiction into a bad but bestselling memoir. That he lied to her got O upset enough to go all J.J. Hunsecker on him and small Frey down in public. Lance of course, lied to more people, made far more money, but with him she was able to remain comfortably above the fray, making sure we could see his human side.
Lance needed the platform. He doesn’t do retail anymore, hasn’t for years. His wealth comes from endorsements and speaking engagements, and his work consists of convincing corporations to fund his foundation with him as the front man. He wasn’t looking to explain himself to Oprah fans or bike racers or cyclists. His first task was to assure his fellow incumbents, those who hold the biggest purse strings, that he was not a bad guy, just a guy who happened to do one bad thing. Yes, that bad thing meant he did lots of bad things, but they weren’t so awful because everyone else did it, too. He just “did what he had to do,” and they can understand that—it’s what makes them big people. His second task was to give a plausible explanation for his behavior. Something that people could say, “I can kind of see that. The world was against him—I’d break the rules in those circumstances, too.” Something that will allow them to continue to see him as an inspirational figure, as this is the only marketable skill he has left.
The story that he wants to compete again is of a piece with this. It’s plausible. But competition is also how he keeps himself in the public eye. If he does a running race or a triathlon or a bike race, he can potentially collect an appearance fee. And plug sponsors. And his foundation.
Competing again is his most realistic meal ticket. But it’s a means to an end. He certainly can go and do Saturday morning hammerfests and pick off Strava records—if he trains enough. He could go and do unsanctioned Gran Fondos. He can join a club and do unsanctioned club meets in any sport. There are ways to compete without competing in sanctioned races. He knows this. But pinning on a number at a sanctioned race is probably the only way he can see to making money and a future. Running races and tri’s are where the money is, not bike racing. Besides, his bike racing will never be extraordinary again.
His net worth is allegedly $120 million dollars. That’s a lot of fuck you money. Cut down expenses and he can have homes in Austin, Aspen, and Hawaii, support his kids and still not work. He can be the present father his own father never was, and the dad his stepfather wasn’t (a chance at two victories). But using 330,000 gallons of water per month in the Texas summer costs. As do taxes. Besides, he has other things in his future.
There has been talk over the years that he has an interest in politics. Being shown to be a liar and a cheat certainly makes going into politics a bit harder, but that date could be years away. Rick Perry has got to be ending his run in the Texas governor’s mansion soon. If Lance can start to rehab his image now, work out the tone and the message, slowly rebuilding all he lost, perhaps he has a chance.
It’s hard to gauge the success of the Oprah rollout. He’s about to be sued by SCA promotions, but his lawyer says Lance is not giving the $12 million back. Though largely on a technicality—Lance sees it as a gift to him from his employer. Which I guess means they’re the ones who need to give it back. Not a great move for winning people over.
But he’s also starting to work with the rabble. He stooped for an interview with Cyclingnews. Enough to find out he’s playing the victim card while still sort of acknowledging his role. “this is not about one man, one team, one director. This is about cycling and to be frank it’s about ALL endurance sports. Publicly lynching one man and his team will not solve this problem.” But, “I’m only interested in owning up to my mistakes. I’m a big boy and I’m not in the blame game.” It’s an interesting walk; he’s not in to the blame game, but he’s blaming all sports. One for his cancer fans. Lance 3.1. The odd thing is that people who read Cyclingnews probably know enough to conclude that Lance is no victim and have read enough to know he was treated fairly in light of the rules and other punishments meted out. Maybe he figures if he repeats it enough, people will start to believe.
It also means, he’s dipping his toes into retail. It’s hard to imagine the people who read Cyclingnews are ready for him. At the same time, they’re the challenge. The Champagne Room scenesters will probably only open the door to Lance if he can prove he’s bringing his masses back together. Matt McConaughey, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams haven’t exactly been tweeted with Lance in the past several months.
And this is the problem Lance faces. He might well be locked out of the Champagne Room until he can make an offering. He’s not the awesome cancer survivor who won the Tour. He’s the cheating cancer survivor who stole his way into exclusive environs. He needs to become the good guy who is delivering for the cancer community.
Judging by his Strava pose, he has little interest in being the good guy. Perhaps its time to slim the housing portfolio, bone up on being a good father, and enjoy whatever fuck you money is left after settling the lawsuits. Better that than not being able to get a job at Mellow Johnny’s.