I’ve always believed Lance Armstrong and now that he’s come clean, I think he might be lying. We’re in a world of shadows here, like a good spy novel — think John le Carré — where nothing is as it seems. And as in those novels, deception is not merely a plot device but deeply, morally corrosive. I can forgive his use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the lying is much harder to pardon.
Whispers of fraud have followed the Tour de France cyclist with every extraordinary win. Armstrong flatly denied the allegations — actually, he did far more than deny. He denounced them, loudly and vociferously. He became an anti-doping crusader of sorts, speaking proudly of the 600-plus drug tests he had passed. In one extraordinary piece of hubris, in 2004 he sued a British newspaper that had printed allegations about his drug use, winning a settlement and getting an abject apology.
Even as the claims grew louder and louder, I believed him. When former teammates made their own accusations, I thought how sad it was to see such misplaced jealousy. When the US Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of his titles last summer and banned him for life, it seemed like officialdom run amok.
I was wrong. Granted, I’m a bit gullible. I also thought for years that Bounty really was the quicker picker-upper. And I’m still surprised when, having held some M&Ms for awhile, I open my hand and see they have, in fact, melted.
But I also understand there are different kinds of lies. Puffery from an advertiser is to be expected. And most of us have learned over the years that honesty bluntly voiced — whether it be about personal comportment or the intelligence of our acquaintances’ children — can actually be cruel. It can also quickly leave us friendless.
But the case with Armstrong is far different from such trivial or well-intentioned untruths. In some ways, he was only the latest of many: author James Frey, financier Bernie Madoff, and President Bill Clinton quickly come to mind. Like theirs, his lies, compounded by the breadth of his deception, his fame, and the vehemence of his denials, cut to the heart of what he presented himself to be. Indeed, even now I don’t know what to believe. Is Armstrong admitting to using drugs not because he actually took them but simply as a tactic to put the allegations behind him? It wouldn’t surprise me.
Liars and lies are all around us and the question, I suppose, is what are we to do about it?
Most of us conduct our lives under a presumption of trust. We think the folks we meet and interact with are who they say they are, we believe they are sincere in what they do, and we rely upon all of that. We’re not blind in this, but it is a starting point. It would be a sad, cynical world to live the opposite, to presume the worst of people, not the best.
That’s changing, though, and I see it happening to me. I now assume that e-mails I receive — whether ads pitching new products or those passed on by friends detailing some governmental outrage — are false. More disturbingly, I also now assume that those who approach me on the street are lying as well. Whether it’s a sob story about needing a dollar to fetch one’s car in the tow lot (“I left my wallet inside”) or some far-too-peppy kid with a clipboard hawking “Save the Children,” I figure they’re all scams. Why? Because from experience I’ve learned that almost all of them are. One or two might be true, but the effort of sorting those out is too much.
Lance Armstrong is the latest such experience. Is he an exception or the rule?
There is the sad story last week of Manti Te’o, the star linebacker for Notre Dame whose girlfriend — met online — suddenly and tragically died of leukemia. It appears the whole thing was an elaborate hoax allegedly perpetrated on Te’o. If so, one wonders whether he can ever trust again. Thanks to Armstrong, one wonders whether the rest of us can as well. We are all — to get back to le Carré — Smiley’s people.Tom Keane’s column appears weekly in the Globe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.