Here are two things you probably knew before Thursday evening:
1. Despite years of vehement and even vicious denials, cyclist Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing substances to help him win his seven Tour de France titles.
2. Oprah Winfrey is very good at interviewing people on television.
Yet even with the near-universal possession of this knowledge, not to mention leaked confirmation that during a recent interview with Winfrey, Armstrong finally admitted doping, OWN’s “Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive” on Thursday night was possibly the most anticipated television special since last year’s second presidential debate, before which Americans wondered if President Obama was going to allow Mitt Romney to clean his clock a second time.
It is a lesson we cannot learn often enough: Never underestimate the power of the O.
Seriously, who else could so successfully leverage an interview with a disgraced sports star in which the big “get” is him admitting what everyone already knows in a manner everyone anticipates -- he did it, he’s sorry, he takes full responsibility? Peter Jackson may be getting three movies out of “The Hobbit,” but Oprah got two nights and 150 minutes out of Lance Armstrong.
For days now, the interview has obsessed virtually every media outlet in the country. Sportswriters slammed Armstrong for choosing to confess to sympathetic Mom (Oprah) rather than stern and righteous Dad (sportswriters); news organizations questioned OWN’s decision to withhold the details of an important news story long enough for Americans to locate OWN on the upper reaches of their cable channels, while media pundits heralded the return of Winfrey to active pop-culture duty.
One interview, 75 different ways to cover it. Honestly, even after all these years, the woman’s media moxie just takes your breath away.
From the minute the cameras began to roll, it was clear that this worldwide exclusive was going to be as much an unveiling of a re-tuned Winfrey as it was of a robotically contrite Armstrong. Though she was wearing light blue and her hair soft -- shoulder-length ringlets -- Oprah was all business, instantly establishing Armstrong’s guilt by rattling off a series of questions to which he could only answer “yes” or “no.” They were all about whether he had used performance-enhancing substances and the answer to each and every one was “yes.”
Eschewing any of her usual stage craft -- the comfy couches, the high-gloss sets --Winfrey taped the interview in a nondescript Austin, Texas, hotel room, which, along with multiple cut-aways to clips detailing the timeline of accusations, investigations and denials, gave the interview a dressed-down newsy feel, far more “60 Minutes” than “Super Soul Sunday.”
Aware, no doubt, that she would be perceived by some as a safe choice for Armstrong, Oprah spent many of the first 90 minutes rather obsessively establishing the dimensions of his transgressions -- had he forced his teammates to dope? (no, though he copped to influencing them, perhaps heavily), had he doped mid-race? (possibly), had he intentionally defamed those who spoke out about his drug use? (yes) -- before dipping into the psychology of a career that Armstrong now calls “one big lie." But even entering the more traditional “O” zone -- did he feel guilty? (no) did he think of himself as a cheater? (no) was he afraid he would get caught? (no) does he feel ashamed now at how he behaved (yes) -- Winfrey maintained a level of aloof sternness rather than emotional connection.
Compared with the heat of a similar interview with author James Frey after much of his “memoir” was revealed to be fiction, the Armstrong interview was a surprisingly coldblooded affair, in part because Armstrong himself appeared chronically, perhaps even psychotically, detached, speaking at times as if from a script about a guy he once knew and sounding no more, or less, convincing than he did when lying his head off in earlier interviews. (Also, and perhaps more important, Armstrong had never come on her show and lied directly to her, a sin most of us find difficult to forgive.)
But mostly the cool tone, in the interview’s first part anyway, reminded us how well Winfrey understands her medium and her message. People come to Oprah to confess their sins because Oprah remains deeply committed to the intrinsic value of personal testimony. The belief that an individual’s experience is complicated and often contradictory, and the ability to get people to testify to those complications and contradictions in a way that engenders hope rather than despair, is what made Oprah a star. Though initially stern with transgressors, she holds out the promise of a comforting shoulder; all you have to do is tell the truth and it will be OK. The questions may be tough, but answer them and you walk away with her blessing, if not absolved of your sins then at least seen as something more than the sum of them.
This is her talent, her calling. We give Oprah our stories, our selves, and she reflects back a better version of them. When “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended, there was much talk of her remaining behind the scenes at OWN, but that always seemed absurd. Winfrey, on camera, interacting with others, is the main natural resource of OWN; everything else is just ancillary business, the hotels and restaurants that spring up to shelter the harvesters. With this interview, she is offering, perhaps, a twist on her persona, an ability to work with a harder edge, to take on people and issues some feel should be left to journalists. But in the end, it’s still Oprah, forcing another soul to see himself more clearly for the benefit of us all.