We should have known

This week, Oprah declared Lance Armstrong “certainly the biggest interview I’ve ever done.” It will air on her cable network tonight and tomorrow.
How soon she forgets. It was 20 years ago next month that Oprah actually had the biggest TV interview of all time. Broadcast live worldwide, it was Michael Jackson’s first interview in 14 years, watched by 90 million people. And while all Armstrong has to offer is cheating and 15 years of lies, Jackson discussed being beaten by his father (denied by the father), plastic surgery (denied by Michael), his rare skin disease, children’s parties at his ranch — and it was capped off with Oprah gushing over Michael doing the moonwalk. Has the queen of talk forgotten the king of pop?
Well, Jackson is deceased and so no longer available for a ratings boost. “I have a dream of OJ Simpson confessing to me,” Oprah declared in 2011 when she ended her daily show and launched her network. Alas, OJ is in a Nevada prison, so the dream will have to be deferred. In the meantime, Armstrong is the readily available crook of the moment, so: lights, camera, confession. Oprah’s network needs ratings and Armstrong needed a sympathetic ear. It’s a win-win.
The Armstrong confession is a decade late and millions of dollars short. I initially believed Armstrong’s protestations of innocence — he was never caught by the testing system, after all, as he never tired of repeating. Yet it became untenable to uphold his innocence as the years went on. So many believed the unbelievable for too long, including me, because we overlooked the importance of character.
As the evidence of widespread corruption in cycling mounted, to believe that Armstrong was clean required a belief that he was a man of heroic virtue. To win clean in a dirty era would have meant more than that Armstrong was superhumanly athletic; he would have had to be a man of superlative moral character. To compete clean when rivals are dirty is an act of moral courage and heroism, for it would mean that all of the training, all of the effort, all of the sacrifice would likely be for naught. Cheaters cheat because they are more likely to win. Only a man of preternatural integrity is able to be honest in the face of that. Few men are able to choose defeat with honour over victory by deceit, especially when worldwide fame and wealth are on offer.
Was it ever plausible that Lance Armstrong was such a man? His two autobiographies present to us a man of surpassing vanity, ruthless ambition, seething resentments, broken promises and marital inconstancy. In an honest era, surrounded by honest men, a morally weak man might be propped up by his fellows. In a dishonest era, there is no chance. A bad man might behave well under the good influence of others. Armstrong was a corrupting influence in the company of corrupt men.
The question for a dozen years has been: Did he cheat? We now know that he did. The question of character is one that would have given us an answer much earlier: Is this the kind of man who would cheat if he could get away with it? That is not sufficient for a court of law, but would have led to a more accurate public judgment.
One mark of the morally noble man is to accept criticism — especially baseless criticism — with grace and magnanimity. At the top of his game, Armstrong had neither. He was cool to his friends and vicious to his enemies. He rounded mercilessly on those who dared to tell the truth about him. He treated with contempt anyone who dared question the legend of Lance.
All is in tatters today, but not for long. Oprah will bask in the tawdry glow of it all, and then return to pining for OJ. Armstrong, having confessed to corrupting cycling, will prove a suitable government witness in the corrupt American criminal justice system. Having proved adept at telling lies for so long, he ought to be able to achieve a measure of penal leniency if he tells the lies that the prosecutors now want to hear. Lance may well prosper again, for a dishonest age honours its own.