Armstrong helped launch a health program in South Africa in January.
Ianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
That may not change anytime soon, says Bush's more wonkish predecessor, an ardent FOL (Friend of Lance) who says he watched "almost every stage" of the 2005 Tour de France. "Regardless of which party takes the Congress next fall, or the White House in '08," says Bill Clinton, "we're stuck with this big deficit [projected to be $3.3 trillion over the next decade]. Even with a substantial change in policy, there will still be an enormous set of gaps between what the market will produce and what the government can provide. And the nongovernmental sector has to step into those gaps."
A mention of the ubiquitous Armstrong-inspired yellow wristbands triggers a Clintonian riff on how "the Internet and mass marketing mechanisms have increased the power of private citizens to do public good ... particularly if they are well led, whether it is by Bono or Bill and Melinda Gates or Lance Armstrong."
So this is what Armstrong does for an encore. This is the next hors catégorie mountain looming before him: raising money, raising awareness, cajoling, bullying, shaming -- "making a significant difference in the battle against what's going to be the Number 1 killer in America," Armstrong declares. "That's how I make seven yellow jerseys look small."
"Ten years from now," says Clinton, "we may say Lance's second career was greater than his first."
Bono, by the way, thinks Armstrong should run for office. "Most people don't believe that the world can be changed," the Irish rock star and political activist says. "Lance is different. He understands that hills can be climbed, and he isn't even depressed when, upon reaching the summit of one, he sees a larger one [ahead]. He's used to that. That's what Lance Armstrong stands for."
Ixnay on politics, says Armstrong, who fears that the moment he chooses a political side, he will halve his influence. "I need to run for one office," he says, making up a title as he goes along, "the presidency of the Cancer Fighters' Union of the World."
He might have to wrest that title from Michael Milken, a cancer survivor whose Prostate Cancer Foundation has helped transform cancer research, streamlining the grant process and requiring recipients to share their research. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2003 there were 369 fewer cancer deaths in the U.S. than the previous year -- the first decrease in 70 years. That's due in part to Milken, the former Wall Street financier who spent 22 months in jail in the 1990s for securities violations. Milken has smarts, money and access to the corridors of power. What he does not have, says the LAF's Ulman, is the ability "to reach millions of people."
Unlike Armstrong, in other words, Milken is not sitting on an army. The LAF has sold more than 60 million yellow livestrong wristbands. Armstrong and his advisers are still thinking about how and when they will mobilize that army -- whose ranks they encourage you to swell by clicking on www.livestrong.org. But when they do, says LAF marketing director Dave Lyon, "we're going to have an awfully big cannon to point."
Until then, Armstrong is enjoying life, smothering his three children with affection (they spend almost half their time with him; their mother lives less than two miles away), mountain biking on his ranch and doing homework: reading cancer literature and debriefing experts on cancer-related issues. For every day he has spent catching up on all the fun he missed over the last 10 years -- at the Rose Bowl in early January, Armstrong and fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey "tried to pack a four-year undergraduate experience into 48 hours," a friend recalls -- there is a day like Feb. 17, when the LAF brought together some of the brightest minds in the fight against cancer. The panelists were instructed to put all options on the table and suspend disbelief. "Don't think about what can't happen because of current realities," said Ulman. "Think about what needs to happen in your field." Armstrong scribbled notes and asked questions throughout the day.
Armstrong could coast now, says Bono, his friend and mentor ... and a man who knows a little about leveraging celebrity to do good. "But Lance wants to go back to school. And that makes him very dangerous. When a great man goes back to school, the Devil gets very depressed."