Oprah Winfrey didn’t pussyfoot around.
She got Lance Armstrong to confess in the first minute.
It was a curiously unemotional moment, the prosecutor leading the witness through what seemed like well-rehearsed paces in a businesslike fashion.
Armstrong said he was sorry for all the years of lying, but he sounded like he was reading a shopping list. He may have been wearing a lavender shirt that complemented Oprah’s violet dress, but the disgraced cycling champion was anything but colorful.
On her cable channel Thursday night, Winfrey wisely began with a series of yes-or-no questions that brought a decade of deception to an end.
Did Armstrong take banned substances? Yes. EPO? Yes. Blood transfusions? Yes. In winning all seven Tour de France titles? Yes.
If you changed the channel then, you didn’t miss much.
It was the most eagerly anticipated interview since Monica Lewinsky sat down with Barbara Walters (except there was no sex, lies and audiotape, just lies).
But the event had an anticlimactic feel. First came the leak (to the New York Times) that Armstrong was considering coming clean. Then came the leak (to USA Today) that he planned to confess to Oprah. Then came the leak (to the AP) that he had in fact told Oprah he’d been a doper. So all that remained to be seen were what words Armstrong would use and what demeanor he would display.
He just didn’t seem contrite. “You brazenly and deliberately denied everything you’ve just admitted to me,” Winfrey said. No dispute. “You called other people liars.” True. Armstrong didn’t so much engage in the interview as endure it.
He admitted he could not have won those Tour de France titles without doping. He said he didn’t think he’d get caught. But he never quite explained the audacious, elaborate and endless lying.
“The story was so perfect for so long,” Armstrong said. That’s right, perfectly untrue.
When Winfrey forced him to watch a videotaped deposition in which he lied about doping, Armstrong appeared halting and detached. He later said he was embarrassed but didn’t appear so. She could not get the man to open up.
Armstrong said he didn’t feel he was cheating at the time; he was leveling the playing field. It was as though he was talking about someone else.
Even when Armstrong acknowledged having been a bully, there was no flicker of soul-searching. Maybe he doesn’t have a soul to search.
The sit-down, part two of which airs Friday night, was a test for both of them. Armstrong’s task was to generate enough public sympathy to allow him to salvage a once-glittering career that he single-handedly ruined. He utterly failed.
Winfrey’s challenge was to reclaim a bit of the cultural spotlight that she once owned before abandoning her syndicated stardom for the cable netherworld. She clearly succeeded.
You’ve got to say this. Everyone wanted the Armstrong interview. He could have gone to “60 Minutes” or the “Today” show or “Katie.” But Oprah landed him. She is still seen as having the requisite mix of toughness and empathy to be able to deal with stars who have misbehaved, though Armstrong’s misconduct is on a different level than your stereotypical celebrity in rehab.
David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun television critic, argues that the landscape has changed. By the time Winfrey gave up her show, he says, “the media had fragmented on one front, making it harder for TV to serve as pop culture’s big revival tent for the ritual of confession, forgiveness and rebirth.”
Maybe he’s right. I don’t forgive Lance Armstrong, who lied to me in two interviews. And I suspect most of America won’t, either.
Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.