Lance Armstrong and the art of public confession

There are no free rides out of paradise. As a disgraced sporting legend, Lance Armstrong, who for the most part came clean to Oprah Winfrey on American television this week, could be forgiven for thinking he has trespassed in the Garden of Eden, or perhaps gone sunbathing on the rock usually occupied by Prometheus.

In the runup to his “no holds barred” interview on the aptly named OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), Armstrong faced a daunting charge sheet. In many sporting minds, he (a) is widely perceived as a liar, a cheat, a bully and a fraud; (b) deserves to be eviscerated by the pitiless eagle of public opinion; and (c) must be banished to plow the bitter furrow of atonement before he can begin to achieve any kind of rehabilitation. When they contemplated their man’s high noon with Winfrey, Team Armstrong must have been wondering, How on earth can Lance recover?

Armstrong’s predicament may look like the sporting equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but it’s not unique. Far from it. In France — or should we say Mordovia? — actor Gerard Depardieu is going through an equal crisis. The Republic’s favorite son, the star of stage and screen, has become a national embarrassment for his tax-avoidance antics.

According to those “close friends” of tabloid reports, Depardieu “has got himself stuck in a role he didn’t want. He doesn’t know how to get out of it.” Indeed, “Gege” (as he’s known in France) is said not to understand what’s happened to him. The short answer is: la chute, the Fall.

Ever since Good Friday A.D. 33, Western tradition has been steeped in ideas of sacrifice and atonement. The forgiveness of sins is an inextinguishable strand in European consciousness and literature, from Euripides and Shakespeare to Tolstoy, Camus and Hardy.

Every Hollywood producer worth a table in the Polo Lounge knows the value of “the redemptive ending.” There is a Bible-based card game called Redemption. As any fallen public figure will know, it’s all a matter of how you play your cards.

Shakespeare nails the issue in “The Winter’s Tale.” The crux is this: does salvation come through human repentance or the mercy of God? King Leontes recognizes that “a thousand knees, ten thousand years together” (a lot of praying) will not save him. It’s not enough to appeal to a higher power (either God or Oprah). It’s only when the king confronts himself and admits “I am ashamed” that the frozen statue of his queen, Hermione, comes to life and he, too, is regenerated. “O, she’s warm,” exclaims Leontes, expressing his late salvation in one of Shakespeare’s most heartbreaking lines.

In a secular age, the anatomy of redemption is less familiar and the mysterious workings of mercy and grace are further removed. Both Armstrong and Depardieu, however, still have to follow the via crucis of the fallen celebrity, with fat books of advice from a gruesome galere of professional minders. There are, indeed, many circles in the inferno of disgrace.

Sport lies in the first circle, far above the lower depths. Your public may be cool toward you, but if you are still competitive and eager to perform, the crowds will turn out. You might have to brave the odd hiss and boo, or the occasional cold shoulder, but you can still be a player.

Once Tiger Woods had made a clean breast of his sexual misdemeanors, he was able to return to the fairway. By his own astonishing standards, he is still a long way off his game, but his career is recovering. In a more brutal arena, Mike Tyson’s career was on the slide before he took a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Now, after some well-timed media appearances, notably sending himself up in 2009 film “The Hangover,” he is slowly morphing from loathsome pit bull/rapist into lovable rogue.

In an adjacent circle of infamy you’ll find fallen film stars, stray writers and some celebrities. Depardieu belongs here, rubbing shoulders with Mel Gibson (alleged anti-Semitic ranting), Hugh Grant (limo sex with a Los Angeles prostitute) and even Jeffrey Archer (perjury).

The key to celebrity redemption is the display of not-too-abject contrition, preferably to a chat show host, mixed with regular work, balls of steel and Churchill’s motto — KBO, “Keep Buggering On.”

The worst circles of disgrace will always be occupied by politicians. Democracies celebrate a unique bond between voters and their elected representatives. Betray that trust and you’re in deep trouble. In the United Kingdom, both the late John Profumo, who gave his name to a “scandal,” and member of Parliament Jonathan Aitken, who perjured himself in a court action against The Guardian, illustrate the long and rocky road to redemption.

Profumo, the minister who lied to the House of Commons about his brief affair with model Christine Keeler, resigned amid ignominy and devoted the rest of his life to good works in the East End of London. Symbolically, he started over by cleaning toilets, and later became a charity fundraiser. He never returned to politics, but on his death in 2006 was widely saluted for his selfless contribution to society.

Aitken went to prison for his crime, turned to Bible study, and found God, but says he could not become a vicar because he “wouldn’t want to give dog collars a bad name.” (Timely exhibition of modest wit certainly smooths the path of redemption.) Aitken is now president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He’ll probably never return to politics, but he has found a measure of personal redemption through his faith, which appears genuine.

In America, the icons of political infamy are more lurid, and larger than life. In the lowest circle of all we find the hairy, sweating and satanic figure of President Richard Milhous Nixon. For decades, “Tricky Dicky” was the supreme hate figure for the American left, the incarnation of the antichrist for Democrats. A man, you would think, beyond redemption.

But America, which is founded on the best advertisement for change ever written, the Declaration of Independence, believes in regeneration. U.S. capitalism, indeed, depends on it, and some Americans have an astounding capacity for gravity-defying self-belief. In the 1980s and 1990s, having survived a brush with death soon after his resignation, Nixon worked his way back into public acceptance, if not affection. The film “Frost-Nixon” shows how, behind the scenes, he devoted himself to his personal rehabilitation.

Gradually, through the exercise of his formidable grasp of foreign affairs, no fewer than nine books, and some quiet self-promotion to his successors in the White House, Nixon became regenerate. Astonishingly, when he died in 1994, four ex-presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush) turned out, the nation mourned and Nixon was forgiven. In his eulogy, President Clinton, who would come to know a thing or two about disgrace, conceded Nixon’s “mistakes” but declared that “his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Clinton’s own subsequent difficulties with impeachment after the painful admission of his relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, briefly placed him adjacent to Nixon in the depths of hell. But not for long. His crime was more personal than political and Clinton cleverly invited the American people to exercise forgiveness. The self-styled “comeback kid” made an emotional rendezvous with televised contrition and virtually wrote the playbook for political redemption in the age of the 24/7 news cycle. He apologized to everyone. He confessed to pastors (and his wife, Hillary). He conceded few specifics. Occasionally, he was indignant (“I did not have sexual relations with … Miss Lewinsky”). Finally, he wrote his memoirs. The public ate it up. During the 2012 presidential election, Clinton’s partisan stumping was one of President Barack Obama’s greatest assets.

So can Lance Armstrong pull it off? Some Americans see parallels with Clinton. One lawyer, Jeffrey Dorough, told the BBC: “President Clinton has rebuilt his image over the years, and now he’s more popular than ever.”

Armstrong’s best chance for redemption probably lies in more sporting challenges. The New York Times says Armstrong now “hopes to compete in triathlons.” Running in circles might become a bearable version of hell for a man banished from Elysium.