Did anyone come out of the second engagement of Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin-known to the public for three weeks, known to the couple for "a couple of weeks" before that-with dignity intact? Well, let’s see. There’s US Weekly , which purchased the original, now-surreal scoop for enough cash to buy Newsweek 100,000 times over. There’s People , which got a sordid revenge by owning the rest of the story, from the post-announcement rumors from Levi (He had another kid! Possibly!) to Bristol’s admission ("through tears") that she’d been had, and it was over.
And then there was the political press, which got snookered into a storyline based, basically, on vapor. Jezebel’s Anna North called it a "genius" move by Sarah Palin, her "smartest PR ploy ever." Politico’s Ben Smith explained that the Brevi nuptials were "evidence" of a 2012 Palin presidential bid "to the degree that she's cleaning up a messy family situation." Smith averred that Palin’s strategy was "drowned out by her daughter's exclusive dish," but that was an afterthought. Clearly, she’d outsmarted everyone again by cajoling her daughter into marriage with a man who’d broken one engagement and profited off of his connection to the Palin family.
Did anyone really believe this, or was the temptation to get clicks by putting Palin’s name in a headline strong enough to inspire commentary on something writers couldn’t have actually known the details about? I’m going with the second option, because nothing in the history between Johnston and the Palins suggested that he might get married in a plot to boost their political brand. In none of her Facebook posts or Fox News appearances did Palin express any pleasure at the impending marriage of her eldest daughter. The family’s official response to the news was an ice-cold statement about how Bristol had the right to make her own decisions and "believes in redemption and forgiveness to a degree most of us struggle to put in practice in our daily lives."
So why assume that Palin was behind it all, cleaning up a problem before a possible 2012 run? It’s because the alternative, truer explanation is dull. Palin as tabloid joke is a story for 2008. The story for 2010 is that she’s a master plotter, a recruiter of grizzlies, whose book sales and TV deals prove that she’s outsmarted everyone.
This theory doesn’t have many takers inside of Alaska, where Palin’s celebrity and national designs are frowned upon by people who wanted her to serve out her term. But outside of Alaska, Palin has had so much success with a memoir and a Facebook account that we assume she’s about to outsmart everyone in some other way. In this case, the assumption was that Palin thinks so far ahead that the idea of a Bristol-Levi shotgun wedding, something treated as a joke when rumored in 2008, became an example of Machiavellian strategy and media manipulation. Well, now we know-Palin cannot actually force her child into a loveless marriage to fix a political problem.
Photograph of Sarah Palin with Bristol and Levi by Paul J. Richards/Getty Images.