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For Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, celebrity cures all

The twists just keep coming for Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, the estranged couple who came to fame during Sarah Palin's 2008 vice presidential run.

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I owe Sarah Palin an apology.

Two years ago, when the news broke about her daughter's pregnancy, I slammed the newly selected vice presidential candidate for doing her daughter a terrible disservice. Palin's seeming lack of concern for Bristol's privacy brought out, though I didn't know I had one at the time, my inner Mama Grizzly.

"My first thought on hearing the news was: What was Sarah Palin thinking?" I wrote then. "Assuming, as the campaign says, that she knew about her 17-year-old's pregnancy and informed [John] McCain in advance, how could she expose her daughter to the inevitable spotlight that Palin's vice presidential nomination would bring?"

How naive of me.

Palin's failed candidacy and her ascendance to the ranks of political celebrity were, it turns out, the best thing that could have happened to Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston.

In acknowledging Bristol's pregnancy, Palin beseeched the media "to respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates."

How naive of her.

Forget tradition. Forget privacy. In our celebrity-drenched culture, Bristol and Levi quickly figured out what Sarah and I both failed to understand: Bristol's out-of-wedlock pregnancy was not an embarrassment. It was a marketing opportunity.

Think about it. A teenage single mom with a high school diploma. A father who dropped out of high school in his junior year. These are not the makings of a stable economic path.

If Sarah had followed my advice and told McCain "thanks, but no thanks" about the vice presidency -- as she claimed to have done with federal funding for the bridge to nowhere -- Bristol would have had a future to nowhere. Levi, too.

Instead, Palin did Bristol and her boyfriend an unintentional, lucrative favor. Bristol became a paid abstinence ambassador with the Candie's Foundation, which works to prevent teen pregnancy. She signed up with a speakers bureau to preach the gospel of abstinence -- at a reported $15,000 to $30,000 a pop. She made a guest appearance on ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." She posed for Harper's Bazaar in Carolina Herrera and Isaac Mizrahi designs.

Levi also seized the moment. He showed all (Playgirl), told all (Vanity Fair), retracted some. He appeared in an ad for pistachios, standing next to a bodyguard and cracking open a nut with the voice-over, "Now Levi Johnston does it with protection." Classy.

And then, much as the unhappy couple had monetized their breakup, the newly -- and, I fear, temporarily -- happy couple monetized their reunion. It was announced on the cover of Us Weekly, complete with Bristol imagining the wedding, herself in white, Levi and baby Tripp in matching camouflage vests. The New York Post estimated that the couple was paid $100,000; Us Weekly denied it. Meanwhile, they are said to be peddling a reality television series.

Bristol and Levi represent the perfect, well, marriage of politics-as-infotainment and low-rent celebrity culture. Other political offspring have leveraged connections and fame to prosper outside the family business -- but at real, or at least nominally real, jobs. Think Ron Reagan Jr. as TV host, George W. Bush as baseball team owner. Other political relatives and hangers-on have capitalized on their proximity to political scandal. Think Jenny Sanford as memoirist or Andrew Young, whose best-selling account of being Official Beard for John Edwards is soon to be a major motion picture.

Bristol and Levi managed to meld these two strands of opportunism. They trade off the connection without the nuisance of an actual job even as they profit from their own tackiness, not the sordid missteps of principals. A reality show would be the perfect summation: "Bristol and Levi Minus 7," perhaps, or "Real Housewife of Wasilla."

Almost 50 years ago, in his prescient book "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America," historian Daniel J. Boorstin lamented that "the machinery of information has brought into being a new substitute for the hero, who is the celebrity, and whose main characteristic is his well-knownness. In the democracy of pseudo-events, anyone can become a celebrity, if only he can get into the news and stay there."

Boorstin might not have imagined that things would descend to the point of Bristol, Levi and the uncommonly beautiful Tripp, but he would recognize the forces that created them. There is something quintessentially American about this grubby, unabashed entrepreneurialism.

As for Sarah Palin, Mama Grizzly took care of her cub after all. I refudiate my previous criticism.

marcusr@washpost.com


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