What a burden it must be to keep a lie alive for so long.

Some of us can barely keep a surprise party to ourselves.

Thinking about Lance Armstrong’s anticipated doping confession makes me think of so many others whose careers have been destroyed by deception.

The question becomes: Why do people lie?

Experience and common sense suggest that many people lie for two basic reasons. They do it to gain something or to keep from losing something.

Politics, a breeding ground for many forms of character bacteria, produced the John Edwards, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon assaults on truth, among others. Closer to home, there’s former Rock Island County State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez and record-breaking embezzler Rita Crundwell of nearby Dixon, Ill.

Edwards, a former Democratic presidential candidate, had as much to lose as Armstrong. If only he had come clean about his affair with Rielle Hunter from the start, he might have managed a narrow thread of public understanding.

Everyone makes mistakes, right?

But Edwards only made matters worse when he refused to acknowledge his infidelity produced an offspring. Lying is bad enough. When a wealthy man denies paternity, it’s somehow more repugnant.

But why? What makes one lie worse than the next? And why do some people make the choice to hide the truth and stick to a lie, regardless the cost?

I turned to two local college professors who teach classes in ethics to help understand what motivates people like Armstrong to deceive millions of people.

Professor Timothy Bloser of Augustana College pointed out that people don’t always plan to lie.

“The first lie can come without careful deliberation,” he said. “A lie shouldn’t imply it was given great thought. It can be very impulsive.

“In a weird way, for people to regard you with integrity, you have to keep up the lie. If he (Armstrong) cut his losses and came clean, he would lose his legacy.”

In other words, people sometimes feel they have to lie to protect themselves, even if it’s from the initial lie.

St. Ambrose University Professor Andy Swift introduced another idea.

“A lot of people say untrue things about themselves for different reasons,” he said. “In Armstrong’s case, his rationale is that everyone was doing it.”

We’ll evidently learn more about it from Oprah Winfrey’s interview beginning tonight, but it would seem Armstrong was a contributor to the everyone-is-doing-it culture. He has been portrayed as one of the kingpins behind a well-orchestrated and well-hidden doping ring.

“He came real close to pulling it off,” Swift said of Armstrong’s decade of doping denial. “If he had pulled it off, he would be rich and revered.”

The “rich” part probably will stick, regardless. Armstrong is likely to have to repay some endorsement fees and legal settlements, which resulted from his rabid attacks on those who dared to challenge his lies.

But he’s worth an estimated $100 million. His reputation as a world-class athlete and golden boy of cancer-research philanthropy isn’t as apt to survive.

Or is it?

“This (confession) is his attempt to regain his reputation and try to make a living,” Swift said. “I’m pretty sure he’ll never do this again. He’s not the first person who’s lied. I believe in things like forgiveness.”

Fortunately for Armstrong, many people are inclined to forgive. Many of us realize that being human means being imperfect. And many others will take into account the good Armstrong has done through his charity, Livestrong.

Yet another set will punish him for life, unwilling to look past the lies.

No matter how you slice it, though, he can’t win. And that may be the real undoing for a guy like Lance Armstrong.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com.

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