Much ado about Levi

Bristol Palin's ex talked about sex and family on "The Tyra Banks Show." It infuriated Sarah Palin -- and made me want to watch.

Published April 7, 2009 8:19PM (EDT)

It's been seven months since Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was ceremonially hurled at the nation by former presidential candidate John McCain. Seven months of prepping and primping and practicing and coiffing and fitting and retracting and denying and obfuscating and spinning, and somehow, after 28 weeks, the woman still has no idea how to handle the press.

A media-savvy governor, upon learning that her daughter's ex-boyfriend and baby-daddy had granted an interview to talk-show host Tyra Banks, might have pounded a fist on a table, uttered a handful of salty expletives, crossed her fingers that nobody would tune in and quietly hoped that it would all get swept under the carpet.

Not Sarah Palin! No, this wizard decided the best way to tackle the (understandably irritating) problem of her loose-lipped would-have-been son-in-law was to publicly rebuke the kid, in a grandiose statement of denial and affronted morals, the weekend before the offending interview was to air, thereby ensuring that the episode of "Tyra" would become must-see television.

Which is how I wound up sitting in front of "The Tyra Banks Show" on Monday afternoon, watching a multi-segment interview with 19-year-old Levi Johnston, his sister Mercede and mom Sherry, who together gave an empty-calorie interview that touched on Levi's sex life with the former vice-presidential candidate's daughter, the tensions between the Johnston and Palin families and the inability of Levi and his kin to gain access to young Tripp Palin, access that is not likely to get any smoother thanks to their time on Tyra's couch.

Palin really should have watched the interview before fluffing this flaccid 40 minutes into a full-blown media tempest. In her statement this weekend, she made the whole thing sound way more exciting than it was, accusing the Johnstons of "engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of [Levi and Bristol's] relationship," as part of what Palin called their "quest for fame, attention, and fortune." (It would also have been wise of Palin to avoid using words like "distortion," "exaggeration" and "lies" in the same statement in which she described her daughter Bristol's interest in "advocating abstinence," when in fact, six weeks ago, Bristol told Greta Van Susteren that abstinence is "not realistic.")

But Palin has never been known for her nimble handling of nuance, or truth, or words.

So here everyone was, thanks to Tyra's best publicist, Gov. Palin, to see what the fuss was about. As it turned out: absolutely nothing. Levi Johnston showed up in an untucked button-down, grey pants and a bright blue sweater vest, sounding no more or less like an anxious dumbass than you might expect of a teenager who wants to talk about his private life on "Tyra."

He was affable and monosyllabic, giving mostly grunting "yes" and "no" answers to Banks' questions. Did he cheat on Bristol? "No." Had he moved in with the Palins before Tripp's birth? "Yes." Did he and Bristol share a room? "Yes."

But Levi was downright eloquent in comparison to Banks, who treated him with a combination of condescension and obsequiousness unmatched in my recent television watching experience.

When Banks grabbed Johnston's hand -- her nails painted a bilious green -- to show off the "Bristol" tattoo he'd gotten on his ring finger, she spoke to him as if he were a toddler. Pointing out that he was a teen dad, she felt free to affectionately note, "you're like a baby yourself!" At another point, when she inquired about whether he and Bristol practiced safe sex, Banks creepily rubbed her hand on Johnston's knee, assuring him he was on "Tyra's couch" and could answer personal questions.

When she wasn't coddling, sympathizing with or inappropriately touching him, Banks was voicing repeated wonderment at the fact that Johnston and his family were "breaking their silence" by coming on her show.

The reason for the silence-breaking, according to Levi, was that "there have been a lot of things in the newspapers and news ... saying I'd done steroids and drugs and cheated on Bristol ..."

"That are lies," Banks helpfully affirmed, without ever asking whether he had, in fact, done drugs or steroids.

Levi, looking surprised at the easy credulity, added with something that sounded like mature perspective, "at the same time they're kind of funny, [the media] ain't got nothing better to do than pick on young kids."

Levi offered a raft of observations about how the course of young love does not always run smooth. Then, "I think we were ready for a kid," he stammered, "[but] she said she wanted to wait a couple of years or something like that?"

Here Tyra showed the clip to which Johnston was murkily referring, in which Bristol told Van Susteren that though she loved her son, and though Levi was a good hands-on father, she wished they had waited 10 years to have their child. At this, Johnston mildly concurred, saying, "I wish we probably would have waited a little but, at the same time, I wouldn't go back and trade it for anything."

Given the forum and circumstances, Johnston was relatively gracious, and even classy, when holding forth on both Bristol and her family. He said that the Palin family applied no pressure to get married, claiming that he and Bristol had always planned on marrying before the pregnancy: "We'd been together for a long time, it was something we'd always thought of." Asked what attracted him to Bristol at the beginning, Levi said, "Her whole family is big-time into hunting and fishing and that kind of thing. She's not a big-time shopper city girl. She's really smart, I guess, a pretty intelligent woman, and that's enough for me." He also allowed as how he believed Sarah Palin knew that he was having sex with her daughter, because "moms are pretty smart," and said that even though he assumed it would make it harder for him to see his son, he would still vote for Palin for president against Barack Obama (though the degree to which that admission was precipitated by his dislike of Obama was unclear).

The part of the interview that has already gotten the headlines is when Tyra asked him if he and Bristol practiced safe sex. He repeatedly answered yes. As she pressed him harder and harder about whether they were safe every time, he finally said, "Most of the time." Breaking news: Bristol and Levi sometimes didn't practice safe sex.

Banks' feints at media watchdogging were laughable. At one point, she asked Levi about reports that his MySpace page once read that he was a "red-neck" who did not want children. Yes, Levi said, but those MySpace comments were 3 years old, and had been dug up in the course of the campaign. "And the press'll make it seem like you said that after Bristol was pregnant," Banks pointed out reprovingly, not pointing to a single outlet that reported Levi's MySpace comments as post-pregnancy enunciations. "See how the press works? Mmmmhmmmm." Banks later congratulated herself and the Johnstons for not having been paid to be on the show, noting that "some journalists do that" but that that's not what had happened in this case."You all are not being paid and you are just here. That is so important and I think they deserve a round of applause."

But what was so barkingly obvious about the whole exercise was that the Johnstons didn't need to be paid for coming on a talk show. This is America. Someone in this family had the sense to know that, with their split from the Palins, their Warholian quarter-hour was winding up, and that a talk show tour might help them pad out the last 15. And that it might also be the only way to get some of their undoubtedly real and vexing frustrations into the open.

Mother Sherry wanted to say that there was more to the story of her arrest on drug charges than met the eye, and even though she was not free to talk about it, someday she would get her day in court and be able to explain that her story "had twists in it." Sister Mercede wanted to tell the story of how she wasn't allowed at the hospital the day that Tripp was born even though all of Bristol's cousins and friends were allowed in. Sherry wanted to say that she doesn't have any pictures of her grandson, and that Levi had always wanted to be a father, and how he used to say his son would be on skates before he would walk. Mercede wanted to talk about how the rumors that she's a jealous sister are untrue because the whole thing is that Bristol is jealous of her because she and Levi are so close, and she has a tattoo of Levi's name on her arm, and she warned Levi not to get the tattoo of Bristol's name on his finger.

Yes, if there was any crumb of a story revealed in this interview -- and the narrative value of that crumb would have to be weighed on a "Days of Our Lives" scale of hourly revelation -- it was that Bristol and Levi's breakup had much less to do with Bristol and Levi than it had to do with the girl-girl dynamics of the ruptured friendship between Bristol and Mercede. As Levi explained about the difficulty of seeing his son, "Her and my sister have gotten into some fights. They don't like each other very much. That's a big problem with her not letting me come over to the house."

As it turns out, Mercede was the crazy-pants star on "Tyra," as she surely was anxious to be. Frustrated, she said, at not being able to see her nephew, and at the bad press her family has received, Mercede was visibly brimming with a desire for the attention and publicity that had so unfairly landed on the shoulders of pregnant Bristol.

In another time, another tax bracket, another television genre, Mercede could have been a character on "My So-Called Life," regaling anyone who would listen -- please, please listen -- with underminey, labyrinthine, impenetrable adolescent narrative about how Bristol doesn't like how she's friends with a lot of Levi's exes and then one day she was out with a friend who used to date Levi in middle school and Bristol sent her a text about how she was white trash and her friends were white trash and then 10 minutes later all of Bristol's random friends were texting about the whole family was white trash and then someone -- uh, I wonder who? -- must have leaked it to the press that Bristol called her family white trash.

Whatever, cheddar. The thing is, Mercede is no different from any of the girls and boys who jabber mindlessly into the cameras on "My Super Sweet 16" or any reality show, thrilled that someone is pointing a camera at them and asking them to rattle on about their lives.

Why should the Johnstons be any better, or different, from the rest of America, which is encouraged by every reality show, every top chef and next model and bachelor and swapped wife, to believe that life in this country only really makes a mark if it is lived on television?

No wonder they wanted, or needed, to show up on "Tyra" and talk. Here they had been thrown into a spotlight that we are taught to crave. The lenses of a nation and a world were pointed at them, their family, their MySpace pages, their hockey games. But because of the strictures of a presidential campaign, and their association with a governor determined to control a story line that was clearly out of her control from the start, these people were never offered a mike.

So here. They got one. They are as boring and ordinary and dysfunctional as any other family to get on a talk show stage and tell an audience of their arguments, their disappointments, their sex lives and their text message fights. The only difference here is that their dull emissions were amplified by the interference of the woman who was trying to muffle them. In doing so, Sarah Palin only wound up drawing a wider audience, more of an impetus to keep talking, and a vivid example of why her friends, associates and family members would want to take up microphones and defy her. In her statement renouncing Levi, Palin not only repackaged Bristol's position on abstinence, she also made the following spooky and controlling statement: "Bristol realizes now that she made a mistake in her relationship and is the one taking responsibility for their actions."

Palin's unstoppable desire to speak for and talk over anyone around her -- be it her daughter, or her would-have-been son-in-law -- must be maddening. But it surely also inspires in them a desire to yell louder, and with greater defiance, to get Greta on the phone, or Tyra, if necessary, to rebel in any possible way from the steel-fisted but inept message mangler.

My hopes for young Piper growing into a radical feminist politician grow brighter by the day.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Love And Sex Sarah Palin Sex Sex Education Tyra Banks