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He's hot, he's cute, he's playing hardball

November 19, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

I'm not proud of this, but I sort of love Levi Johnston. I know he's an opportunistic buffoon. I know he's a grammatically challenged, Playgirl-posing, pistachio-shilling (yes, he made a commercial for nuts) media pawn who's not only taking the low road but ripping the pavement to shreds.

I also know there's no proof that anything Johnston says about his former would-be mother-in-law -- the Alaska governor turned Republican vice presidential nominee turned book author Sarah Palin -- is true. But I have to confess: Lately, he's become a guilty pleasure.

Watching or reading about him is pretty much the equivalent of (sorry to be so graphic, but there's really no better example) popping an enormous pimple on your chin. You know no good can come of it. You know, in fact, you're only making things worse by encouraging the growth of more pimples, not to mention inviting a festering scab that will turn into an unfortunate scar. But it's just too satisfying to turn away from.

In all honesty, I didn't fully appreciate the carbuncular joys of Johnston until this week. Last spring, when he appeared on "Larry King Live" with his mother and sister, he managed to be simultaneously cringe- and nap-inducing. Instead of talking about what people really wanted to know -- like exactly when Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign became aware of Bristol's pregnancy -- he waxed monosyllabic about his finger tattoo ("Bristol") and his enthusiasm for sheep hunting.

"Sheep herding?" asked King at the precise moment that millions of viewers were wondering the same thing.

"Sheep hunting," Johnston clarified.

He didn't mean the domestic kind that graze languidly in pastures and provide us with Merino wool blankets and mutton chops. But the association has its uses. Think lamb to the slaughter, or more precisely, newly jaded sacrificial critter kicking and screaming on the way to oblivion. In any case, it's difficult to look at Bristol's ex and not see a lamb that has traded his silence for vengeance.

His testimony in October's Vanity Fair, in which he made numerous unverifiable claims -- that the Palin marriage was on the rocks, that Todd and Sarah did little parenting, that as governor Sarah was known to leave work at noon and spend the rest of the day watching reality TV shows -- was, at least compared with the King interview and a rather overreaching profile the next month in GQ, downright mesmerizing.

Granted, it's fairly evident that Johnston didn't so much "write" the article as -- at least the way I imagine it -- lie down on a LeCorbusier chaise lounge in some quiet corner of the Conde Nast building and deliver a stream-of-consciousness purge that was then typed up and edited into a juicy and reasonably coherent 4,000 or so words. It should also be said that Johnston's television appearances are still on the painfully laconic side. There's a lot more excitement (albeit in that fleeting, zit-popping way) in reading snippets of his anti-Palin barbs -- "It's almost funny that she's like 46 years old and she's battling a 19-year-old and I'm winning" -- on the Internet than to sit through the halting live-action version.

Not that watching the 45-year-old (she'll be 46 in February) make the rounds this week promoting her autobiography, "Going Rogue," is significantly more fun. The much-anticipated "Oprah" segment on Monday resulted in few surprises. As for Barbara Walters' sit-down with Palin on "Good Morning America," the most memorable moment was Palin's use of the word "bullcrap."

So far on this book tour, no one has asked her much about policy, or about why her account of the campaign diverges so wildly from those of McCain staffers or even, finally, what newspapers and magazines she really does read. (Palin told Oprah she was an avid reader and took Katie Couric's infamous question about her taste in periodicals as a knock on her intelligence and a slur against Alaska. So why in the world didn't Oprah ask what's on her bedside table?)

No one Palin will get within sheep-shooting distance of is going to ask that or much of anything else, of course. And that's why Johnston, despite being as dumb and bland as he is cute, may actually be the most necessary player in the Palin media circus. With Palin-approved interviewers barely straying from what sound mostly like Palin-approved scripts, Johnston at least provides an avenue for more interesting questions.

Because of him, Oprah and Walters don't have to be thorny, edgy interrogators themselves. Instead, they can hide behind Johnston the raving wayward teenager: "Levi says this about you; what do you say?" The role of empathic -- not impudent -- TV host is safe.

A sad truth has emerged about the prurient and embarrassing Johnston sideshow. Like him or not, we need this kid right now. Fairly or not, at least he's playing hardball and not softball. Bullcrap or not, at least he's keeping audiences awake. Which is more than Walters and her ilk -- not to mention Palin herself -- have done so far.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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