The American ritual of celebrity confession and redemption is an exercise in having your cake and eating it too. You get to commit the career-ending crime — to fabricate the memoir, to have the affair with the intern — without actually having to end your career.

But Lance Armstrong’s much-hyped encounter with Oprah Winfrey, the first part of which aired on Thursday, was even more cynical and calculating: an attempt to confess without confessing. It was an effort to meet the minimum standards for a celebrity confession while avoiding legal liabilities, and leaving Armstrong’s weapons-grade sanctimony intact. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too, but also not to eat it, and in any case, everyone was eating cakes, and it depends what you mean by “cake”.

It made for compelling television but not for the reasons Armstrong might have wanted. Bursting into tears with Oprah may be corny but appearing without emotion, as he did, is worse. It draws attention to the fundamental falsity of it all. You’re supposed to leave the viewer moved, and morally superior — not soiled for having tuned in at all.

He admitted to doping within seconds, under Winfrey’s calmly precise questioning. (Because of her history of giving away free cars, and bestowing too much credibility on dubious guests, it’s often overlooked how good an interviewer Oprah can be.) But the rest of his 90-minute performance consisted of lawyerly quibbling. Had he pressured team-mates to take performance-enhancing drugs? “I don’t want to split hairs here,” Armstrong replied, explaining that he hadn’t pressured them but had allowed a situation to exist in which they’d felt pressured. At one point, he said, he’d looked up “cheating” in a dictionary and concluded, astonishingly, that it didn’t apply to him.

There were flat-out contradictions. Had he acted like a bully since he was a child? Yes, Armstrong conceded — only to claim, seconds later, when it helped him make a different point, that he’d only become a bully after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25.

Like a partially competent magician, Armstrong hoped he could distract and confuse so neither Oprah, nor the audience, would detect problems with his argument. Fighting cancer gave him a “relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude”, he said, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making him take whatever banned substances his cycling victories required.

But when Winfrey pointed out that he’d admitted taking such drugs prior to his diagnosis, he barely paused to agree, before galloping onwards.

The most alienating moment came when Armstrong purported not to remember whether he had sued Emma O’Reilly, the team’s masseuse, whom he’d labelled an alcoholic and a prostitute after she blew the whistle. Winfrey gave him an opportunity to apologise to O’Reilly but his self-absorption made that impossible. “We sued so many people, I don’t even ... I’m sure we did,” he said.

If there was emotion, it was that Armstrong was enjoying himself — a disaster in crisis-management terms. Winfrey never elicited a shred of empathy on Armstrong’s part. But the explanation for that, to judge from his responses, was that there wasn’t any there. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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