Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images
Gore Vidal called us "the United States of Amnesia." And now Lance Armstrong's televised cheating confession raises the question of whether, when it comes to fallen heroes, there's anything Americans won't forgive and forget.
From Bill Clinton (again toast of the Democratic Party) to Charlie Sheen (again a sitcom TV star) to Michael Vick (again an NFL quarterback), the bar for public redemption seems to have gotten lower and lower. Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o -- embroiled in his own personal drama over a fictitious girlfriend -- could be next up in the groveling line.
"America," says Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association and a student of hero worship, "is the land of second chances." All you have to do is ask -- especially if you can throw a ball, sing a song, make a speech, coach a team or hold the camera.
Armstrong, though, tests even Americans' capacity for forgiveness; in addition to doping, for years the cyclist bullied others to dope; vilified his accusers and investigators; and used his cancer survivor-cum-superman-athlete saga to enrich himself and raise money for charity.
As a cyclist, Armstrong has climbed many hills. As a candidate for forgiveness, says John Cirillo, public relations consultant and former New York Knicks spokesman, "he has a Mount Everest to climb. He's become one of the most notorious liars in American sports history."
Yet experience suggests there is hope even for Armstrong. He just has to repent -- or appear to.
How? In the Tour de France, Armstrong had to complete 21 stages in 23 days; the experts -- psychologists, theologians, ethicists, agents, PR people -- say that in his television interview with Oprah Winfrey, he had to complete four stages in two hours.
See if you think he did.
1. Confession: "I did it."
Some fallen heroes do not even make it this far. Roger Clemens (pitcher accused of doping) and Kobe Bryant (hoopster accused of sexual assault) have denied wrongdoing and prevailed legally. Others have proclaimed their innocence all the way to prison. They include "Queen of Mean" hotel owner Leona Helmsley, who by all appearances didn't want your forgiveness, anyway.
For celebrities, Winfrey's show is a popular confessional, having accommodated the likes of memoirist James Frey, who admitted fabricating facts, and David Letterman, who admitted office affairs.
2. Contrition: "I'm sorry I did it."
This might seem a small, obvious step. Even the rebellious Sheen, speaking at the 2011 Emmy Awards, made amends for some of his previous antics. But there are apologies and apologies.
Pete Rose, for instance, has never seemed all that sorry for betting on baseball games when he was a manager. He tried to explain why in his 2004 autobiography: "I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way."
His build didn't make him look contrite. Neither did the fact that, after 14 years of denials, he confessed three days before his book went on sale.
In it, he sounded more petulant than penitent: "I've consistently heard the statement: 'If Pete Rose came clean, all would be forgiven.' Well, I've done what you've asked."
Also, the apologist doesn't always stick to the apology. Missouri U.S. Rep. Todd Akin sent a mixed message last year in his Senate campaign when, after three days of expressing remorse for having said women rarely get pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape," he said there had been "a little bit of an overreaction" to his comments.
The best way to undercut an apology is to make it conditional, as in "I'm sorry if anyone was offended by what I ..." The "if" implies that the insult, usually bad enough to penetrate the hide of a rhinoceros, was offensive only in the mind of the offended.
3. Conversion: "I will not do it again."
This seems implicit after the first two steps. But James Martin, the Jesuit priest and writer who often appears on The Colbert Report (and who uses the ecclesiastical term "purpose of amendment" for this step), says it can't stand alone.
It's something, he says, "people can feel in their bones." To be convincing, a promise to sin no more requires a final step.
4. Atonement: "I will do this because I did that."
Without penance, confession and contrition can't be assumed to have produced conversion.
Martin, who hears people's confessions and assigns penance -- Catholics and some other Christians call it the Rite of Reconciliation -- says penance has to be proportionate to the sin, and to be performed voluntarily and publicly.
Michael Vick, once in prison and in disgrace for his role in dog fighting, has worked with the Humane Society of the United States to combat cruelty to animals and spoken at inner-city schools to tell students of his mistakes. His rehabilitation has been commended by many, including the president.
Martin has considered some possible penances for Armstrong, such as 1) vowing never to cycle again; 2) turning his millions over to a charity other than his own creation, the Livestrong Foundation; 3) writing letters to all those from whom he raised money under what now appear to have been false pretenses.
But he said Armstrong's reported readiness now to testify against cycling officials who allowed or encouraged doping does not qualify: "Penance is not blaming others, or sending them to jail. That's like going into the confessional and telling the priest about other people's sins."
What is proportionate in Armstrong's case? Robert Parham, a Nashville-based ethicist who founded the website EthicsDaily.com, looks to the biblical story of Zacchaeus, a repentant tax collector whom Jesus tells to repay what he wrongly obtained -- fourfold.
Assuming these four steps are followed, we will forgive our heroes (if not our relatives, neighbors or co-workers) almost anything, eventually.
Might Armstrong's forgiveness come sooner or later?
Counting against him is how long he cheated and lied about cheating, says Steve Rosner, founder of 16W Marketing, which represents former athletes such as Phil Simms, Howie Long and Boomer Esiason.
"If he hadn't been so adamant about his innocence for so long, it'd be a different story," Rosner says. "It will be extremely, extremely difficult for him to ever get any kind of corporate support."
The problem, agrees Cirillo, goes beyond the doping. "People are angry about just how long Lance stonewalled."
Other factors might conspire to lessen Armstrong's exile from public affection: 1) He's worked hard in the fight against cancer, the disease that almost killed him; 2) he was merely one of many elite cyclists who were doping and covering up; 3) he didn't hurt anyone, unlike singer Chris Brown, who hit his girlfriend, Rihanna, or Bernard Madoff, who ruined many of his clients.
Cirillo adds this: How many Americans, members of what amounts to "a drug culture" -- amateur bodybuilders on steroids, professional truckers on uppers, clubgoers on cocaine, housewives on pot -- will cast a stone at Armstrong?
Many fallen heroes have repented and risen:
Bill Clinton: Rosner says Armstrong should regard the former president as the model for recovery from public scandal. This summer, 14 years after he told a grand jury looking into the Monica Lewinsky scandal that "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," Clinton took the Democratic convention by storm.
How did he do it? Partly by confessing, notably in 1998 at a White House clergy prayer breakfast where -- his eyes welling at times with tears -- he said, "I have sinned" and "I have repented." Partly by good works, notably since leaving office and founding the Clinton Global Initiative. Parham, the ethicist, says he views Clinton's entire post-presidency as a form of presence for the havoc he wreaked by getting involved with Lewinsky.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: In 2011, the actor and former governor of California, admitted he'd fathered a son more than 14 years earlier with his family's housekeeper. He said he told his wife, former TV personality Maria Shriver, but did not mention that he did so only after she confronted him.
Schwarzenegger subsequently announced that he was dropping or halting plans to resume his acting career, and devoted a chapter in his autobiography to the scandal.
This year, Schwarzenegger appeared in The Expendables 2 and will next star as an L.A. cop in a film called The Last Stand. He also will reprise his role as a certain Barbarian in the 2014 film, The Legend of Conan.
Bobby Petrino: The Arkansas football coach was fired in April after he lied about his motorcycle accident, which involved a female athletic staff member whom he had hired and with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
He apologized, and eight months later was hired by Western Kentucky. His four-year contract, worth $850,000 annually, made him the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt Conference.
Mark Sanford: In 2009, when he was governor of South Carolina, Sanford revealed he'd had an affair with an Argentine woman. (At one point, when incommunicado with his paramour, he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.)
In an interview, he said that although he'd been unfaithful to his wife, he'd die "knowing that I had met my soul mate." He and his wife separated and he served out his term.
On Wednesday, Sanford announced plans to run for his old seat in Congress. He made no mention about the affair or the Appalachian Trail.
As of this writing, once-disgraced slugger Mark McGwire is a major league hitting coach. Rick Pitino, who admitted in 2009 that he'd been involved in a seamy extramarital sexual tryst that made him a blackmail target, is coaching the nation's top-ranked college basketball team. James Frey has a three-book deal with HarperCollins.
If neither Martha Stewart (convicted in 2004 in connection with a stock fraud case) nor Tiger Woods (exposed as a serial philanderer in 2009) have recovered their old dominance, it's not because they didn't get the chance.
So when it comes to the rich, famous and formerly heroic: Americans are forgiving and -- except for obituary writers -- forgetting. Good or bad?
Martin says he can't even agree with himself; on one hand, it's the essence of Christianity to forgive; on the other, you can forgive the thief, but you don't have to make him treasurer. Forgive, says Parham, don't forget.
The experience of another epic rogue cannot be very encouraging to Armstrong.
Madoff, the Ponzi financier, admitted to all charges. He did not even try to plea bargain. He apologized, saying: "I have left a legacy of shame, as some of my victims have pointed out, to my family and my grandchildren. This is something I will live in for the rest of my life. I'm sorry."
It was an apology few will ever accept for a crime few will ever forget.
Two years after Madoff was sentenced, his son Andrew said, "I'll never forgive him."
Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman