Even the best politicians trip themselves up sometimes.
Lance Armstrong — who's destined to be governor of Texas someday (just wait) — found that out the hard way in front of a largely adoring crowd of thousands of business travel executives in Houston Wednesday. Armstrong is long polished, smooth and poised in giving these type of big-dollar convention speeches, where a major-name celebrity (check), hopefully with an inspirational backstory (triple check), is paid a nice-sized appearance fee to talk to a bunch of over-partied attendees at a conference whose subject the speaker may really know little about (check).
A crowd like the one at George R. Brown is usually putty in Armstrong's hands, as easy as a smooth, straight road for arguably the greatest cyclist in history.
Lance is a pro's pro in this arena too. Stripped dress shirt sleeves rolled up — both setting the correct tone of dressy, but still casually hip and showing off one of those ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bracelets he'd reference often — Armstrong easily moved between the shock of first finding out he had cancer (within 12 hours he was having surgery), his success as a Big C-fighting marketer (71 million bracelets sold!), his no-Brett-Favre-wiggle-room-allowed retirement from Tour de France racing ("I realize my time is past"), praise for his mom for deciding to have him when she was 17 and alone, and the real crowd-pleaser — his feelings on the press.
"I'm not sure you can really trust or believe what you read in a newspaper," Armstrong said, drawing loud applause.
When many of those newspapers — including that tabloid-monger New York Times — are peppered with stories about former unnamed teammates supporting claims that you engaged in systematic doping while racking up the wins that turned you into an iconic Texan and a worldwide hero to so many, it's good to hear the roar of press disapproval. Armstrong broke into an even bigger grin, probably wished he could have put the federal prosecutors who seem determined to turn him into the next Roger Clemens in that giant Houston hall with all those movie-theater-sized screens of him smiling on stage.
The National Business Travel Association crowd — on the final afternoon of a convention that would have made any "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" life philosopher proud — wasn't quite as enamored when Armstrong turned to another one of his favorite-bashing subjects: France.
Forced off script by the moderator in a post pep-talk/marketing power Q & A and asked the predictable, but still apparently off-putting, "travel question," Armstrong didn't wax poetic about a California sunset or even an Austin dive. No, he attacked France.
Specifically, the country's "horrible" hotels.
"Most of my travel — at least in Europe — was in France, staying in these ... You're competing in the biggest race in the world and you're stuck staying in these horrible hotels. There are no French hotel owners in here, are there?"
That only brought a murmur from the crowd. Lance should have taken a clue from the tepid response to his "Are there any Texans in here?" question near the beginning of his speech, a reaction that brought noticeable disappointment to Armstrong's face.
It turned out that the moderator herself works for a company that runs French hotels, bringing about a near hilarious on-stage-exchange that included a "I'm going to have to disagree." The woman made a show of offering to set Armstrong up at a plush hotel he wouldn't be disappointed in on his next trip to France and the seven-time Tour de France champ tried to be polite by joking he had "thousands of witnesses."
But it's clear he's not going back to France. Unless he has to.
Not after he actually listed off the names of the French hotel chains he found unacceptable on stage. Say this about Armstrong, the man is always prepared for his fights.
When Lance wages war, big or small, legacy on the line or silly, he brings ammunition.
You couldn't help but admire how he didn't back down to the French hotel woman (no matter how ridiculous the premise that France is full of crappy hotels is). Lance Armstrong is anything but a bullshitting pleaser. Not even on a stage in front of several thousand people with the rep of the convention that's paying him hoping he'll give in.
That's pure Texan.
"Be a fighter," Armstrong said earlier. "I think that's most people's reaction when they're faced with something. You fight back."
Armstrong wasn't specifically talking about the latest drug allegations or the federal probe that's hovering around him like a dark crowd. Or his reaction to Floyd Landis — a proven cheat turned Armstrong accuser. Or even his now 14 years living as a cancer survivor.
It was more of a general life stance. Some guys collect stamps. Lance Armstrong fights.
The Chosen One
Soon after standing his ground on France, and a near peace out "Keep people moving" to the travel crowd, Armstrong disappeared behind the backstage curtain behind the stage, taking the short walk to go behind a black-curtained area with some couches and chairs in it that serves as something of the green room for the celebrity speakers in George R. Brown's vast hall.
He didn't want to speak to reporters about any of that performance-enhancing drug stuff. Houston Chronicle sports writer Dale Roberston noted how he'd just spent 25 days with Armstrong in France. But in truth, there weren't a whole lot of people clamoring for a piece of the cycling crusader. About six conference attendees lingered outside those curtains, and behind metal barriers, hoping for an autograph or a moment.
That was a far cry from only a few years ago when I did a story on Armstrong at Lake Tahoe's famous celebrity golf tournament and he needed six of Nevada's finest state troopers to clear his way through the throngs.
Whether it's the continuing drug cloud, his thud to morality at this year's Tour de France or just the fact he's 38 and several years removed from his celebrity peak, life on the road (he estimates he still spends 200 days a year traveling) isn't so crazy for Armstrong anymore.
He called one fan back behind the curtain — a guy in a yellow Armstrong jersey who provided something of a running joke for him during his speech. Peter Murao of Los Angeles — attending the convention as a member of the Airline Reporting Commission (ARC) — left with a signed jersey and a smile, but while still calling the athlete "an inspiration," even the chosen mingler wouldn't go as far as dismissing the drug swirl.
"The truth is the truth," Murao said. "I don't know whether he did it or not. But there's a lot of people talking ... One way or the other, the truth will come out eventually. Even if he was on something, it doesn't take away from everything he accomplished. He's still an amazing story."
Murao, a former college gymnast at Indiana University, made it clear he admires Armstrong for his athletic success in an unforgiving, grueling sport as much as anything. Though Murao's mom passed from "the Big C," he wouldn't have bought that jersey years ago, the one he brought to Houston and made sure to wear for Lance's talk, if the Texan wasn't such a dominant winner.
"Where is this story going to run?" Murao asked, realizing he could have his own brief spotlight moment.
Armstrong himself had already left the big building, but the fighting marketer would have no doubt approved of the query.