Forgive us, Oprah, for we have sinned

Out of America: She is the mother confessor of the United States, the woman to whom the nation's miscreants turn and tell all

Share
Related Topics

You've got the biggest PR problem in American sport since the Black Sox scandal. Worse, in fact, since baseball's Chicago White Sox only threw one baseball World Series, in 1919, while you've been stripped of no fewer than seven Tour de France cycling titles for cheating. So where do you go to rebuild your image, to seek re-invention in the land famous for second chances and second acts?

Well, you go to the woman who is said to have won the presidency for Barack Obama four years ago. You go to the woman who – even more miraculously – transported Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, all 837 pages of it, back to the top of the bestseller lists more than a century after it was published. You go to she who has been described as the most powerful woman in the world. In short, you go to Oprah Winfrey.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Lance Armstrong will make a clean breast of things when he sits down with Oprah for Thursday's edition of Next Chapter, billed by her cable channel OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, as a series of "enlightening and in-depth conversations" with the famous.

Armstrong may have lost his titles and his reputation, comprehensively demolished in the infamous report by the US Anti-Doping Agency, arguably the most devastating official indictment of one man's sporting career ever delivered. But he has never yet admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs): indignant denials have thus far been replaced merely by frosty silence. And there's no guarantee he'll admit it now, not least because of the small matter of possible perjury.

It's been a wretched few days for the PED brigade here, what with steroid-stained Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the greatest baseball players of any era, refused admission to the sport's venerated Hall of Fame. But remember: it wasn't drug-taking per se that saw both taken to court in recent years. It was charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice. That awareness must shape Armstrong's calculations now.

But if he is going to tell all, where better than in Oprah's national confessional? At this nadir in his affairs, it was clear Armstrong would never consent to a prosecutorial grilling on CBS's 60 Minutes, or any other of America's traditional investigative programmes. He might have done Larry King, gentler and less combative, but Larry is close to 80, and long ago lost his perch on CNN to Piers Morgan. But even King in his pomp didn't come close to Oprah.

Yes, many people could go through life without once coming across her – if you worked a regular week and weren't at home to watch her show in the afternoons during the 25 years it ran between 1986 and 2011, or if you aren't now inclined to explore the triple-digit reaches of your cable TV line-up, where OWN tends to reside.

But if you did, you were in the presence of a phenomenon. Oprah didn't invent the tabloid talk show; that distinction belongs to Phil Donohue, back in 1967. But the Oprah Winfrey Show perfected the genre. There famous people and ordinary people alike discussed their problems and acknowledged their sins. Revelations were not extracted by fierce questioning, but coaxed forth by curiosity and empathy.

"Humani nihil a me alienum puto" ("I consider nothing that is human alien to me"), wrote the Roman playwright Terence, and Oprah has always followed that maxim. Nothing humans did was off-limits for her show. On it, the abnormal was normal. She was rarely judgemental. She could be loud and earthy, sensitive, funny, tender and wise. She explored gay issues and straight issues, society's fads and society's taboos, and her own as well.

Her background helped. She was born to an unmarried teenage mother in rural Mississippi, and became pregnant herself at the age of 14 (the child, a boy, died in infancy). While still at high school, however, she landed a job in radio and never looked back. This was a truly self-made woman, who became the first black billionaire – but also an utterly human one who obsessed about her weight.

Winfrey's was the most popular talk show in US history. The lay priestess who took confessions became an oracle to her millions of devotees. Oprah's Book Club, in which every month or two she recommended a book, could add millions to the sales of the fortunate volume (and even raise Tolstoy from the dead). In 2007 and 2008, she ventured into politics for the first time, endorsing Obama. According to one study, she brought a million votes his way in the primaries, enabling him to beat Hillary Clinton and go on to win the White House. The "Oprah effect" was mighty enough to propel her for a dozen straight years on to Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people.

And now there's Armstrong, hoping in his turn to bask in the Oprah effect. And why not? If she could help secure the acceptance of gays and lesbians into the American mainstream, as many sociologists would argue, she is surely fitted now to speed the re-acceptance even of the disgraced Lance Armstrong: confession followed by expiation, and finally redemption. Maybe, but it won't be easy.

Armstrong, plainly, is not the admitting sort. The ideal Oprah subject would be Bill Clinton, empathetic like her, touchy-feely, a naughty boy with a winning smile for whom all sins are ultimately forgiven. Armstrong appears different: hard where Clinton is soft, an emblem not just of human frailty, but of human ambition and ruthlessness, too.

But one final thought. Lance may need Oprah – but right now Oprah needs Lance. OWN, by common consent too much dross and too little Winfrey, did so badly after it was launched in 2011 that Time struck her off its list last year. Ratings have improved of late, and the network may finally soon be in the black, after losing a reported $330m (£205m) in 2011. Clearly, however, as far as the Lance and Oprah show is concerned, everyone needs a blockbuster.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

2nd Line server support - Microsoft certified

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large organisa...

Year 1 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required...

Year 5/6Teacher needed - Roath, Cardiff

£100 - £105 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The...

Reception Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The app is due to be launched in San Francisco initially, with other 300 people currently on the waiting list  

Is it too much to ask that people turn up to meet you when they say they will?

Simon Kelner
Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in New York aged just 39  

All this Dylan Thomas fever is telling us only half the story

John Walsh
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?