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Image: Levi Johnston and son Tripp
Ture Lillegraven / GQ
Levi Johnston and son Tripp at the Agate Inn in Wasilla, Alaska, in April 2009.
By GQ.com correspondent
updated 5/30/2009 12:47:58 PM ET 2009-05-30T16:47:58

Levi Johnston says his relations are improving with Bristol Palin, daughter of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The 19-year-old Johnston tells GQ magazine that the Palins aren't "lying when they say that things are better."

Johnston fathered a child with Bristol, the 18-year-old daughter of Alaska governor. But since the couple broke off their engagement, he has complained in national interviews that the Palins were limiting his access to his son Tripp, born Dec. 27.

Johnston also claims in the GQ article that Sarah Palin's husband, Todd Palin, offered to buy Bristol a new car if she broke off the relationship.

The following is an excerpt from “He Shall Be Levi” in the July issue of GQ.

The Dall or Dall’s sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) is an all-white subspecies of wild mountain sheep found in Alaska, where it inhabits the most northerly range of any sheep in the New World. A creature of the snowy passes and dry, craggy alpine meadows, a Dall sheep may go its entire life without venturing below the timberline. In wintertime they eat lichen. Their lambs are sometimes carried off in the talons of golden eagles. The rams grow massive, curling horns, with age rings like a tree’s, which they wield in fall tournaments of so-called hierarchical head butting.

One morning last September, a Dall ram was grazing on cliffside furze in the wilderness north of Anchorage when a couple of seasoned hunters — a father and son named Keith and Levi Johnston — crept within sight of him down the crest of a nearby ridge. They had traveled from the small town of Wasilla, in the lower part of the state, and both carried traditional muzzle-loader rifles, accurate in their hands at more than 200 yards.

The ram sampled the air, but the men were above him. He went on eating and looking up with the strange wariness of the game animal as it is seen through a hunting scope, sensing everything except that its time has been measured. This sheep, who feared few predators, owing to the sheer extremity of his terrain and an uncanny ability to leap from pinnacle to pinnacle among the rocks, was meant to die that morning, from a bullet fired by the boy, Levi. Something intervened.

There was a deep lapping noise that grew louder. Low in the sky there appeared a great black bird with swirling wings.

The bird opened its belly, delivering more men onto the ground. They squawked at the boy and led him into the bird, and the bird moved off, and the ram forgot what had happened and went to check on his ewes, and the father returned to the locally owned gun shop in Wasilla, where they said, “Aren’t you supposed to be sheep hunting?” and he said, “Yeah, I was, till the Secret Service came and took my sheep-hunting partner!” and they laughed.

Levi was in the bird. It flew with him all the way to a city in another world, in what he would describe as the south, in Minnesota, and dropped him into a sort of conference room, full of talkative people — some of whose faces he knew without knowing how — and a guy was touching him, and before the smell of the open country had left his nostrils completely he was leaning back in a chair, having makeup applied to his face, to his eyes and neck, and gel worked into his hair. They had cut his hair. Indeed they had given him a superb haircut, probably the best he would ever have, a haircut designed to shape away the last traces of baby fat from his cheeks and define his jawline, and they stood him in the corner and dressed him from head to toe in new preppy clothes and looked him in the face and said, “You do not say a word.”

“Those words exactly?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” he answered.

If facts were unstable — it may not have been the Secret Service, it may have been campaign operatives; they got him not from the field but from a campsite, or picked him up at home on the day after the hunt — that paled in interest next to the sense, as you spoke to people here, that you were hearing a scrap of western folklore being born. The boy who went to hunt sheep, and got spirited off by the Secret Service, and then came home.

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It takes some mental effort to recover the feeling of how much he seemed to mean at one time, and practically yesterday. Obama has made him seem kitschy already, has stolen his power to signify. Not presuming anything about one’s politics — referring instead to the sheer dynamism of events since the election. We are a couple of beads farther along the necklace of cultural time from Levi. We are post-Levi. It’s decadent to think of him now. But the chemical traces remain of a plausibility structure inside which his very face seemed full of information and even warning. Something was happening to the country, it was splitting in two. Levi looked like a place where the ripping might start. We were laughing at him then, too, of course — that was largely it. If McCain’s choosing Palin had been cynical (as borne out by their recoiling from each other in defeat), not until his embrace of Levi did things become farcical. September 3, on the tarmac, that was when you knew we had reached some point, some level. The McCains came out to welcome the Palins onto the ticket. It was an introduction and some kind of cryptic archconservative coronation. Wind blowing, Bristol dressed in a crisp khaki dress coat. Suddenly into the group shot hove this Levi, chaw-chomping Levi, young, dumb, and full of comeliness, a self-proclaimed redneck hockey enthusiast, no-kids-wanting-but-no-protection-using Levi Johnston, tricked out like a duck hunter now, granted, not like a serious hunter, but no less ready to kick your ass if you messed with him or manifested homosexual tendencies around him. He was at once a bodying forth of the Bush octad and its whole queasy bargain with American masculinity, and at the same time a captivating time bomb of white Alaskan authenticity, with a tattoo on his ring finger. We knew he was there only because it had been deemed worse for him not to be there. That gave him a curious magnetism. And John McCain, fine, he was trying to win a campaign, he’s an opportunist. He’s also a United States senator and a war hero, and there was something in how he greeted Levi — how for a second it mattered whether he greeted this boy, and in what manner — like an acknowledgment. Not of one man to another, exactly, but of one force to another. It was either the beginning or the end of something. Briefly recall when you didn’t know which.

It is a s------- surrounded by such loveliness. Stand there and blink back and forth, shutting your left eye, then your right. Left eye: spit of highway, aggressive proliferation of half-abandoned strip malls, a few roads dwindling off to little houses. Right eye: the mountains, the expanding sky, the shadowy crevasses, a bald eagle. Highway, strip malls, little houses; mountains, sky, crevasses, eagle. Highwaystripmallslittlehouses; mountainsskycrevasseseagle.

Both eyes: Wasilla.

For most of its history, the Iditarod dogsled race began here, in the heart of the Mat-Su Valley, but the snow is not coming heavy enough anymore. They have moved the starting line.

You can feel the Palins. From my budget hotel on Lake Lucille, I can see the big wooden wall that surrounds their house, and a roof beyond it. They are of this place, they belong here, but their power has disturbed an equilibrium. At the gun shop, where the owners have known the family forever, the men at the counter say they believe deep down that when she puts her head on her pillow at night, she wishes she had never said yes to McCain. It’s a remark made with some sadness, sure, but also by way of indicating Cincinnatus qualities.

She is a great American frontier story. Maybe that was hard for you, as it was for me, to see, when we were so busy hoping she would win or lose. But the historical demiurge that spoke through Sarah Palin is one that has cyclically made and remade this country. The funny grammar and the grating voice, the appeal to the old ways hand in hand with new kinds of political ferocity. Tocqueville would have loved her, would have taken her by the hand and walked with her in a meadow. Here it is happening again, at the end of our west. Levi is a mushroom growing in the shadow of that story, I know. But one can talk to Levi.

Image: Levi Johnston
Ture Lillegraven / GQ
“I’m 19 years old, and I’ve never done anything but hunt and fish and camp,” says Levi Johnston.
“Do you want to go on a trip on one of those planes with the floating things that can land in a lake?” I asked him. “What’s that called?”

“A floatplane,” he said.

Levi’s unemployed. That makes helping take care of his son, Tripp, tricky. He has been on “The Tyra Banks Show,” where he met Nick Lachey, but he has very little money. Sarah Palin’s father has called him a deadbeat dad in the paper. Levi then responded, saying he’s tried to get a job but his notoriety makes it impossible. No crew boss wants paparazzi following his men around, I suppose. And they are mainly Palin people around here. Levi’s known to be on the outs.

At one point, before he and Bristol broke up, he did have a job, as an apprentice electrician on the North Slope, where the pipelines are. His father works there, in management. But reporters started scrutinizing everything connected with Sarah Palin, looking for ethics violations, and someone noticed that to get Levi’s apprenticeship, you were supposed to have finished high school. Had Palin asked someone to bend the rules? Levi’s dad told him he ought to go ahead and quit, before they were forced to fire him.

Is he actively seeking work? That’s not really something you can quantify. I didn’t see him fill out any applications, but then I didn’t see him cleaning his rifles, either. I don’t know what he does. He goes places.

Is it possible that he considers me his work, that he’s hoping greater media exposure and “the chance to tell his story” (huge book deal) will lead to a life in which he doesn’t have to fly back and forth to and from the slope, living in a rented house with a dozen other men, shivering his ass off with a wrench in his hand? You bet your frozen titties.

He drove me by the rinks where he played hockey growing up.

Levi was exceptionally good at hockey. And in hockey country. Freshman varsity, junior nationals, college scouts. Called “a game changer” by his coaches. He skated the last game of his junior season on a broken tibia and helped win it. Earlier he had scored both goals in a 2–0 upset that was called Wasilla’s “most significant victory in a decade.”

He took me to his backyard, where there was a square depression in the grass, as if an older cabin had once stood there. Every winter the water truck would come and fill it up, and the yard would freeze. Lots of people do this up there, he said. As it froze, you leveled it with a hot brush. Levi’s father played goal, and Levi would skate up and down and fire the puck all day. The yard was full of horns and antlers and the jawbones of other animals.

When he says, “I hung up my skates,” which is an odd thing for a 19-year-old boy who had just been playing hockey at the peak of his abilities to say, there’s something to it. I don’t know what, but he’s not self-mythologizing. He never brags, in fact, about the hockey. What do I tell you? Levi has chambers.

About the hunting he is more open. One night we were discussing the possibility of his starring in a hunting-themed reality show, an idea for which I did not have to fake the enthusiasm I showed. People had already come after him for “Survivor,” for “Who Wants to Date Levi?” This seemed much less degrading. Plus I imagined Tank in the show, too. Tank being guided by the surly white redskin Levi on these polar adventures, a hallucinogenic skewing of the whole jive-ass colonialist Tonto narrative!

Levi told me that in his estimation, he possessed “as much fishing, camping, and hunting experience as anybody my age in the country, if not more.” I asked how he could possibly know this. “I’m 19 years old,” he said, “and I’ve never done anything but hunt and fish and camp. I don’t see how any of them could get more.”

He left out the hockey completely.

He did not even skate his senior year. Tripp was born about the start of the season.

The previous year he’d been in a homeschool scenario. Alaska boasts the most lax homeschooling rules of any state in the union, in the sense that they have literally almost no rules. Levi was doing his learning online, through a Brigham Young University program. Unsupervised, at the Palins’ house, where Bristol Palin was homeschooling, too.

“May I ask if that’s how Tripp came into the world?”

He did not kiss and tell. He did however shrug and smile.

Interview with a Man-Child
On the flight back up to Alaska, Levi and I sat together. Tank was in another row. I could talk to Levi. He couldn’t go anywhere.

As throughout my stay, I was dazzled by the devotional nature of his relationship with hunting. Back in Wasilla, he’d led me around a huge chainy outdoorsy store where they displayed stuffed specimens of more or less everything you could kill in Alaska (excluding varmints). It amused him how wowed I was. Where I’m from, you hunt deer, bear, and turkey. If you’re demented, you hunt boar. In Alaska you hunt deer, lynx, musk ox, Dall sheep, black bear, brown bear, grizzly bear, mule bear, polar bear, bison, moose, wolverine, porcupine, fox, wolf, caribou, elk, muskrat, mountain goat, coyote, and large alpine rabbit, and you’re just always doing it, shooting and skinning and cooking and mounting.

The shelves where they kept the ammunition were still empty, six months after the election. The day Obama won there was practically a riot, folks buying it up. Now I understood: They weren’t preparing for a race war. They were making absolutely sure they could go on hunting. Taking bullets from these people would be a straight cruelty.

There was no way to do this except abruptly. “Levi,” I said, “this is none of my business. Or it is my business but probably shouldn’t be. Do you still love her? Do you still love Bristol? Because I won’t lie, it seems like you do.” It was the story everyone wanted to be true. Young love triumphing over power and greed, Levi as the Mat-Su Montague.

He rubbed at his jaw for what seemed an extremely long time. Tank was three rows up. The giant headphones on the sides of his head looked like two bulbs stuck into a pumpkin.

In Alaska you heard two competing takes on the Bristol-Levi affair. One was the “under the bus” narrative, held to by the Levi camp. In this story, Levi loves a girl, she gets pregnant, he gives up high school and hockey so he can provide for her and the baby. When it suits their political purposes, the family embraces him and essentially puts him forward as a son-in-law. When his meager political value is spent, they do what most normal parents would do and discourage the daughter from marrying him, in hopes that she can get back on with her future. He’s frozen out of the family. They won’t let him see the baby except for a few hours at a time. They won’t let the baby sleep at his house. His visits at the Palins’ are awkward. He can’t bond with the baby. He’d said to me,

Just going over there makes me pretty damn uncomfortable. I would call and say, “Can I pick him up?” It was, “No, you can’t have him, but you can come see him.” Just going over there, and Todd and Sarah sitting there staring at me, doesn’t do it for me. Todd never says anything, really. Sarah, I don’t know. She’s a politician. She knows how to throw in a fake smile and look happy. They’re pretty good at that.

Camp Bristol tells a different tale, needless to say. In this one, Levi’s essentially a reprobate, unprepared for fatherhood. He needs to get a job and care for his son, stop going on TV and spending time with media a-holes like me. Time to “man up,” as they say. And the reason the baby can’t sleep at your house is your mom’s a drug dealer.

If I’d learned anything from the battle in Seattle — Sexy Teen No Sex vs. Enforced Condoms — it lay in the two-sides-to-every-story line. But could Levi at least help me arrive at a synthesis?

“Did she dump you, or did you dump her?”

He gives me the thing about how it was mutual. “Mutual” means nothing. Levi, what happened?

Image: Levi Johnston and Tripp
Ture Lillegraven / GQ
Levi Johnston shares a sweet moment with his son, Tripp.
I would have to say, like, right when we got back from the [Republican] convention, things got crazy. When the convention was going on, I think it was probably like… I think that’s when we all felt the most comfortable together. We spent a lot of time together down there. It was going great. Then we came back. And when it really hit the fan, I think, is when Sarah lost, and they came back and everything was just kind of…just getting weird.

What did he mean, “weird”?

Everybody was kind of like, we didn’t talk as much anymore, you know, and we just kind of like drifted apart, as far as me and Sarah and Todd. Then me and Bristol just started fighting more and more. I thought it was, like, ’cause she was pregnant, she was moody and that kind of thing. So I was dealing with it and stuff. But it didn’t stop after she had Tripp. Things got worse. So I was like, “All right.”

What did he mean, “All right”?

I left and went back home. Every time we talked, we just weren’t feeling it. We were fighting a lot. We kind of knew it was coming. Then eventually we were just, like, we were just friends and that kind of thing.

Is that what you said? “Let’s just be friends”?

It was like, maybe we’ll get back together, and we just need a break .… That’s not how it turned out. It’s been a long break.

Did you get the sense that her parents were pressuring her?

I know that her parents didn’t want us together. I really don’t think they did. So they probably put a little pressure on her. But at the same time, they told us they wanted us to get married when they found out Bristol was pregnant. Whether they put pressure on her for the breakup — I don’t know what the deal was.

Did you love her?

I think we were in love. I wasn’t one to stick with a girl for three years if I wasn’t. I’m pretty sure you can call it love, but it’s just amazing how fast it can change like that. We were together every day. The feeling we got when we were with each other, it was just totally gone.

Think you’ll ever get back together?

Nah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.

Do you want it to happen?

That’s just not even in my mind.

But she’s beautiful, and she’s the governor’s daughter and the mother of your child.

There’s lots of pretty girls.

She’s rich.

Money doesn’t mean a whole lot.

What about Tripp?

I’ll always have my son.

Does it piss you off that you changed your whole life for this future and now they’ve shut you out?

He put down his glass of Coca-Cola and said, “Yes.”

I folded my wings. Then he laid back his head and went to sleep again, in the Ricky Hollywood sunglasses.

When we’d first boarded the plane, a woman in first class had grabbed his arm and whispered urgently, “You hang in there.” The man in front of her said loudly into his cell phone, “Guess who just got on this plane, wearing the same black shirt he had on this morning!”

For more of the article and to see more Levi Johnston photos, go to GQ.com.


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