Te'o takes a cue from Armstrong

Te'o takes a cue from Armstrong
January 18, 2013, 8:00 am
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Lance's apology failed because he picked the vessel for that apology ahead of time based on tactical considerations. (AP)

It has taken some time to process the confession we didn’t need (Lance Armstrong’s half-hearted, half-assed effort), and to demand the one we’ll probably never truly get (Manti Te’o is already being processed for stage-managed perp walk by his handlers), and here’s where it ends.

Our need for contrition long ago outraced our desire for the truth, and our willingness to embrace it depends not on the newfound veracity of the subject, but on something more subtle and insidious, namely:

What do we want here – the truth, or the palatable version thereof?

It is where Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey failed – we already long deduced what he copped to, and we still don’t get a full explanation of why he needed to crush his friends and enemies alike in pursuit of his fame and cash.

And when Te’o does do his – well, whatever it’s going to be – it will be equally stage-managed and equally false for that very reason. Because it will only be allowed to be a version, for business reasons.

By “false,” we mean “believable only to those who already were pot-committed to believe in the first place.” You know, the people who buy what Notre Dame is continually selling, or those who “know” athletic director Jack Swarbrick and vouch for his forthrightness, or those who want to let Te’o walk just because he cast a humble and earnest figure.

In fact, the most benign version of the Te’o story is actually a mountain of contradictions that only play in his favor if you think he was a child, which is demeaning in its own way. But it is clear he signed onto the fiction of Lennay Kekua at some point, and whether the reason was gain or obfuscation only serves as a mitigating factor.

Notre Dame’s role is relatively simple to understand here: Swarbrick took the public grilling to defend the brand and its latest public exporter of that brand. He wasn’t there to clear up any parts of the story, because it wasn’t his story, or the university’s. He was there to stand by his guy, for as long as the university needs him to do so. Then his next task will be to extract it slowly and barely perceptibly from Te’o and the scam, whatever the scam ends up being. 

But while Te’o has the at least temporary defense of naïveté, there is no benign version of the Armstrong story, for there is no caricature that truly encompasses his essential ruthlessness. Remember, the real issue here is not whether he doped to win a bunch of bicycle races, but how many people he was willing to destroy to maintain his own fiction of the clean ubermensch.

The answer to that, of course, is as many people have spoken out against him in the last several months in a united effort to right the wrong of his business and interpersonal practices.

In other words, it’s not Armstrong’s chemistry we loathe, it’s his character. The Oprah apolo-fest fails not because he tried to apologize on his own terms, but because he picked the vessel for that apology ahead of time based on tactical considerations. He was trying to decide what he felt like apologizing for, and when you throw yourself on the mercy of the court of public opinion, you aren’t in charge of what the public demands. The public is.

And as our consumer nation of celebrity liars now knows, someone who wants to free him- or herself of an edifice of falsehood doesn’t pick and choose the methodology or the inquisitor.

Te’o’s apparent fiction isn’t nearly so banal, or doesn’t seem to be for the moment. It is not yet clear when he signed on to the fiction of Kekua, with whom he signed on, the depths of it, or the motive. The task of the moment is still trying to find all the inconsistencies in his public statements on the girlfriend who never was, and the vetting of Armstrong took years rather than days.

But at some point he will have to face someone’s music, either the public’s or his next potential employer’s. In truth, probably both. If he or his handlers were paying attention to Armstrong’s latest misreading of the room, they will stage-manage little, and be as forthright and open as possible. They have seen the public price of lying with insufficient explanation and unconvincing contrition. They have no excuse for not knowing, and only one excuse for lying again.

The fact that lying wins a lot, while telling the truth typically struggles to break even.