The magazine Vanity Fair opted to open up the fall season featuring another groundbreaking interview with Levi Johnston, a young man whose previous claims to fame included a decisive slap shot in hockey, the ability to navigate a snow machine over rough terrain, and sufficient spermatozoa to impregnate the daughter of a vice presidential candidate. The punditocracy and their associated acolytes across the web immediately fell into predictable patterns of applause and outrage.
You may recall that during the Battle of Ought Eight, Levi was held up — albeit somewhat reluctantly — as a hero of traditional American values. Rather than traipsing off to the nearest abortion clinic, he was going to marry the young woman who found herself in a family way by accident. It was the essence of bootstrap conservatism and personal responsibility, serving as a mark of credit to both the Palin and Johnston families.
What a difference a year makes! With dreams of ceremonies — both inaugural and nuptial — crumbled into dust, Levi has shouldered a new mantle as right-wing whipping boy. He is scorned as a habitual liar, amoral, and a scumbag. But why does the opinion of this young man carry any cache in the political arena?
To answer this question we need look no further than his forebears among the children of famous politicos and other previously unknown peasants who suddenly found themselves with a soapbox far more massive than their personal achievements would otherwise merit. In each case, their weight and popularity are measured by the audience they bring and the partisan spin of their opinions.
Conservatives generally demonstrate a nearly equal glee in their acerbic treatment of Meghan McCain, daughter of the Arizona senator who challenged Barack Obama in 2008. Her youth, her blond mane, and the less than articulate phrases which occasionally escape her lips and pen have been frequent targets of attack. She has never held elected office or personally delivered a project of value to society at large. Why should we listen to this brainless space cadet and her prattling about a larger tent for the GOP?
And yet the same crowds tossing stones at these targets are often staunch and vocal supporters of Liz Cheney, going so far as push for her own run for office. (This is a woman I frequently refer to as Loud Mouth Liz for her unequaled ability to shut down any round table discussion before a speaker with an opposing opinion can get eleven words out of their mouth.) While many of you are leaping to the defense of her bona fides, I would remind you that her two significant public service positions were obtained when her considerably more accomplished father was House minority whip and secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush and then vice president under George W. Bush. She is, in short, the definition of “coat tails” personified.
So why does she gain such credence? If you’ll pause for a moment of reflection in the darkest corner of your heart, I would suggest an alternate scenario. If Ms. Cheney were out there today complaining about the Republicans’ treatment of gays and the warmongering of her father or denouncing torture and pitching the case for a single-payer government health care program, she would be receiving the same treatment as John McCain’s daughter.
A different case in point may be found in the person of Chelsea Clinton, perhaps one of the more reclusive and camera-shy presidential offspring in living memory. She has been pilloried as a “dog” and a “shill for Hillary” by conservative critics, primarily for nothing more than having the temerity to hit the campaign trail for a few months in support of her mother.
Carrie Prejean presented a more difficult puzzle for conservatives. She was vaulted to the heights of GOP celebrity after one mid-pageant question where she came out in support of traditional marriage. The facts that she was engaged in an enterprise frequently eschewed by the family values crowd and had previously posed topless for pay were quickly washed away by her opposition to legal recognition of gay unions. Is she exploiting her virtually unemployed status for personal gain? Would we be lavishing the same praise on her for bold, personal convictions if she had brought a lesbian life partner on stage and called for marriage equality?
This brings us back to the topic du jour, in the person of one Levi Johnston. What does he bring to the debate? From the purely analytical side of the aisle, he literally had his feet well under the table in the Palin household, so some may hope that his personal recollections of familial matters might be brought to bear in electoral battle. Is he looking to feather his own nest through his overly extended fifteen minutes of fame? I have no doubt he is. Would he fudge his testimony to make the product juicier? There may never be anyone who knows the real answer outside of the extended Palin household.
But why does he matter? Because we made him matter. We made him matter when we drooled over Nancy Reagan’s daughter airing the family’s dirty laundry. We made him matter when we followed a lesser known Cheney daughter’s relationship with her lesbian lover. We made him matter when we yucked it up over Jenna Bush stumbling drunkenly outside a night club.
In short, we made Levi Johnston matter when we found political ammunition in the lives and affairs of the smaller players who never sought a single vote. If you don’t care for his opinions or the media attention he receives, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Levi is in the game because we put him on the board, and that’s one Djinn who won’t be going back in the magic lamp any time soon.