Oprah Winfrey made her name by speaking to and for women, by elevating people whom the world ignored or mistreated and recognizing the common joys and struggles of life. Let’s hope she remembered that Monday as she taped her interview with Lance Armstrong, the big get for her new and struggling network.
No doubt, Armstrong fits the Oprah profile. He had ample painful tales, old and new, available for the taping of Thursday night’s show -- abandoned by his father at age 2, ravaged by cancer at 25, banned from all sports and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping last year. He wrung tears from staffers at his Livestrong cancer foundation when he apologized to them shortly before meeting Oprah and the camera crew, according to the Associated Press.
But to remain allied with her true constituency, Oprah’s show must do more than give him the celebrity foot massage that passes for a confessional interview these days. In the days long before Tom Cruise’s bouncing feet dented her couch, she would have listened compassionately to the people Armstrong persecuted for telling the truth about his pharmaceutical misadventures.
She certainly would have listened to Armstrong’s chief antagonist, London Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh, as he talked about the son who died in a bicycling accident in June of 1995 and how the memory of young John helped nudge him from besotted cycling fan to determined investigative journalist. Or, in Armstrong’s word, "troll." Excuse me, "f***ing little troll."
Ordinarily, the tale of a sportswriter under siege from an aggrieved athlete would not be compelling in the least. Taking heat is part of the job, and it beats the downside of many other professions. But the man who launched 80 million yellow bracelets revealed the ugliest side of himself in a passage about Walsh in Daniel Coyle’s 2005 book: “Lance Armstrong’s War."
Coyle had interviewed Walsh about his relentless pursuit of Armstrong, and the sportswriter told him about John’s death at age 12 and about the boy’s passion for digging beneath the surface of any tale. At 7, he heard his teacher’s version of the Nativity story, and how the baby Jesus went to live a modest life as a carpenter’s son, then asked what had happened to all the gold that the three kings dropped off at the manger.
“People say you love all your children equally, but I don’t think that’s true,” Walsh told Coyle. “You love them all, but differently. And this kid, I loved more than any person I’ve ever known.”
Coyle explained all this to Armstrong as he prepared to submit the final manuscript. Here is the passage from the book:
I outline what’s in the book, mentioning that Walsh seems motivated, at least in part, by the memory of his dead son, who he said was his favorite.
Armstrong’s eyes narrow. He cracks his knuckles, one by one.
“How could he have a favorite son? That guy’s a scumbag. I’m a father of three [now five] … to say ‘my favorite son,’ that’s f*****. I’m sorry. I just hate the guy. He’s a little troll.”
Set aside the fact that Armstrong sued the Sunday Times over a Walsh article, now proven accurate, and won a settlement because England’s antiquated libel laws protect the famous the way primogeniture used to maintain the aristocracy’s vast estates. What kind of father responds with that sort of vitriol at the mention of another’s dead child?
Oprah has researchers who could have found that passage in the book. They could have found the story Walsh recently wrote about all of it and how one of his six other children had reassured him that she understood exactly why his love tilted so strongly toward the boy they all lost.
This was the kind of story that Oprah used to love. Does she even notice now?
Walsh’s paper took out an ad in the Chicago Tribune, presenting an open letter from him to the city’s living landmark. He presented 10 questions he wanted Oprah to ask Armstrong.
Such lists have cropped up all over newspapers and websites the last few days. (Here’s another good one.)
I don’t expect Oprah to develop the instincts of a journalist for this occasion. I just want her to respect her own past, when she cared about the un-famous, when she made a career of it.
Will her interview give even a second’s thought to Prentice Steffen? He worked as a doctor for Armstrong’s future team, U.S. Postal, from 1993 to 1996. When approached by two other riders about adding PEDs to the team ritual, Steffen said, he balked and ended up losing his job.
He eventually talked about the incident and about his belief that Armstrong had doped his way to a record seven Tour de France wins. He lost another job, though regained it quickly, and had to sign an apology to Armstrong. For his interest in reform, the doctor also received a punch in the face and attacks about his past as a drug abuser.
Armstrong did not inflict all, or even most of, the damage to Steffen. But he took the Mafioso tactics of the peloton to new heights, and this was the result.
I called Steffen on Monday and said I wanted to relate his history. I expected him to ask me not to dredge up the drug-addiction piece of the story. Instead, he said he shared the information with select people and offered a brief explanation of how it all happened.
“I was one of those kids, small-town Oklahoma, sort of a brain, sort of a jock, kind of didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere,’’ he said. “Alcohol helped me feel like I fit in, and then it was pot. I had a pretty serious drug problem by the time I was 26, halfway through my internship, and I was diverting pharmaceuticals.’’
He found help, went into rehab and acknowledges Feb. 11, 1987 as the date he became clean and sober. “It’s a personal thing that has tons of analogies with doping and, I think, a lot of parallels with being clean in cycling,’’ Steffen said. Oprah used to celebrate these kinds of transformations. Her show, where she will host Lance, is called “Oprah’s Next Chapter." Her guest and his acolytes didn’t want Steffen to have one of his own. They tried to use the previous chapters to silence him.