Friday, July 10, 2009


When The Levi Breaks

Except for a short post last weekend, I've tried to keep the Sarah Palin drama at arm's length.

Regular readers of this blog know that, from the announcement last summer of Palin as McCain's running mate, I've been rather skeptical of the soon-to-be-former governor of Alaska. My initial doubts had more to do with what I saw as a disconnect between the GOP's "family values" brand and the seeming acceptance of familial dysfunction represented by the welcoming of pregnant teen Bristol and "baby daddy" Levi Johnston at the GOP convention.

Since the end of the campaign, my doubts on Palin have intensified, even as the broader family soap-opera has expanded. The end of the Bristol-Levi relationship was about as surprising as the idea of snow in Alaska -- "engagement of convenience," if ever there was one.

What bothered me even more was that Palin constantly gave mixed signals. On the one hand, she indicated frustration over her family coming in for unfair scrutiny from the media. On the other, she seemed to have no problem with letting Bristol become a celebrity herself: She stood by as her 18-year old daughter first became a national spokeswoman against teen pregnancy (which included a trip to a national convention in New York City -- 2,900 miles away) and then sat for a People magazine cover-shoot. Sorry, but this girl has a six-month baby that she's supposedly taking care of!

What sort of "role model" is being created here? If Sarah Palin wants her family out of the media spotlight, don't toss them into it! Let Bristol work within the parameters of being a "normal" teen mother: Help her with college if necessary or help get her a "normal" job in Alaska. As obnoxious as David Letterman's initial comments were, if Palin lets her daughter become a more prominent teen mom, the family becomes fair game for "knocked up" jokes.

However, if Sarah Palin actually has presidential plans for 2012, the smartest thing that she can do is get rid of her spokeswoman. Meg Stapleton doesn't seem to know the first rule of dealing with the press or political incoming fire: You never engage an attack from below. By that I mean, a chief executive doesn't get into a personal fight with someone of unequal stature. During a campaign, a presidential candidate doesn't get into a political fight with a staffer from the other campaign: The candidate just engages the other candidate.

While the dynamic is slightly different when family is involved, the principle isn't completely thrown out the window. Stapleton doesn't understand this. On Thursday, Johnston reappeared to give his opinion that Palin decided to quit the governorship because of monetary reasons:
Levi Johnston, 19, whose wedding to Bristol Palin was called off earlier this year, said Thursday he lived with the Palin family from early December to the second week in January. He claimed he heard the governor several times say how nice it would be to take advantage of the lucrative deals that were being offered, including a reality show and a book.

"She had talked about how nice it would be to take some of this money people had been offering us and you know just run with it, say 'forget everything else,'" he said.

He said he thinks book deals were really what appealed to Palin.

"I think the big deal was the book. That was millions of dollars," said Johnston, who has had a strained relationship with the family but now says things have improved.

Johnston is a 19-year-old kid. The only way he's a threat to the Palins is if they let him become one. The smart response to this is to either (preferably) just ignore the comments or, alternately, just play them down. She can say, "The governor has made the reasons for her decision known. It's been more than six months since Levi lived with the Palins. He's not in a position to know what's transpired since then." Palin and Co. remain above the fray.

Instead, Stapleton can't resist personalizing exchanges with Johnston:
"It is interesting to learn Levi is working on a piece of fiction while honing his acting skills." By engaging him, Stapleton elevates Johnston (and diminishes her supposed bosses, the Palin family).

And it's not the first time she's lashed out at him. After Levi's appearance on the Tyra Banks show in April (when he surmised that Sarah Palin probably knew that he and Bristol were having sex before the pregnancy became known), Stapleton said:
"Bristol did not even know Levi was going on the show. We're disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention, and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship," says the statement from the Palin family rep, Meghan Stapleton.

"Bristol's focus will remain on raising Tripp, completing her education, and advocating abstinence," the statement continues. "It is unfortunate that Levi finds it more appealing to exploit his previous relationship with Bristol than to contribute to the well being of the child."

The statement ends, saying, "Bristol realizes now that she made a mistake in her relationship and is the one taking responsibility for their actions."
Even though Bristol and Levi are no longer romantically involved, they still have a child together. Having the spokeswoman trade barbs with the father of Gov. Palin's grandson isn't just dumb politically, it's stupid personally.

Furthermore, Johnston (or his attorney) seem to have better political instincts than Stapleton (or Palin herself, considering she keeps her spokeswoman around): His explanation for Palin's quitting seems to be more honest and straight-forward than hers. In short, he's sounding more "plain-talking common-sense" than Sarah Palin herself.

But, again, Stapleton is failing the basics of PR: A story only gets bigger when a statement is returned with major fire. Forget about political press secretaries, spokespersons for celebrity clients know this.

Stapleton doesn't. Which creates a big question: Who is Sarah Palin's worst enemy: Her non-son-in-law, her spokeswoman -- or herself?

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan unleashes a can of whup-ass on Sarah Palin and her party defenders. Heather Mac Donald goes after what's left.

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