JUNEAU — The tumultuous relationship between Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston took another surprising turn Wednesday, when the couple announced they were back together and recently got engaged.
The abrupt reunion between Sarah Palin’s daughter and the father of her toddler son felt like a flashback to 2008, when the couple shared the spotlight at the Republican National Convention. The romance later devolved into a messy tabloid drama as Johnston posed for Playgirl Magazine, trashed Sarah Palin in interviews and fought with the Palins over custody.
The fact that the two are back together isn’t likely to be a bad thing for Sarah Palin as she leaves the door open to a possible run for president in 2012.
“I think that the best solution for her longterm, and that’s a little calculating to say — but looking just purely from a political standpoint, the best solution for her is a successful reconciliation between Bristol and Levi,” said Tim Miller, a public affairs consultant who also worked on John McCain’s campaign in Iowa before Palin joined the ticket as the vice presidential nominee in 2008.
In this week’s celebrity glossy Us Weekly, 19-year-old Bristol Palin and 20-year-old Johnston say they’re engaged, marking a rapid turnaround for the couple that just months ago was fighting over child support and Johnston’s critical comments about the family.
The two are on the cover with their 18-month-old son, Tripp. The lead-in tease: “The reunited couple reveal their sudden, secret engagement — and why they hid it from Sarah.”
They tell the magazine they reconnected while working out a custody plan and got engaged two weeks ago. Bristol Palin said she found the idea of telling her mother about the engagement “intimidating and scary” but hoped she’d “jump on board.”
“It felt right, even though we don’t have the approval of our parents,” she said.
Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor, and her husband, Todd, released a statement saying that as parents, “we obviously want what is best for our children, but Bristol is ultimately in charge of determining what is best for her and her beautiful son.”
“Bristol believes in redemption and forgiveness to a degree most of us struggle to put in practice in our daily lives,” they said. “We pray that, as a couple, Bristol and Levi’s relationship matures into one that will allow Tripp to grow up graced with two loving parents in his life.”
A Palin aide didn’t comment beyond the statement; Palin tweeted late Tuesday that she, Todd and daughter Willow were going to Denali National Park for some climbing: “cool air &elevation (equals) good 4 the soul,” she wrote.
Johnston, who answered the door at Bristol Palin’s condo in Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon, confirmed the engagement to The Associated Press but declined to provide further comment on it. He said he wasn’t living at the condo.
Politically speaking, Taylor West, a communications consultant who worked with Democrats in 2008, believes the announcement will probably do little more than solidify the opinions people already hold of Sarah Palin. She said Palin has taken a “celebrity” route of sorts, anyway, as she also makes political endorsements and statements — and the high-profile engagement announcement is in line with that.
Palin’s a contributor to Fox News and best-selling author with a TV travelogue series in the works; Bristol has tried acting and signed with a speakers’ bureau; Johnston has posed for Playgirl.
In recent weeks, there had been signs that Bristol and Levi’s on-again-off-again relationship was improving. Last month, Johnston’s manager said the two are spending more time together for the sake of their son but denied they were a couple.
The couple, thrust into the national spotlight as expectant teen parents during Palin’s 2008 vice presidential run, broke up after their son’s birth. Johnston went on to give interviews criticizing the Palin family, maligning Sarah Palin’s parenting skills and saying she wanted to adopt his child so people wouldn’t know her daughter was pregnant.
Then, earlier this month, Johnston told People magazine he was “unhappy and a little angry” after the breakup and told lies about the Palin family. He said that against his better judgment, he said things about the Palins that “were not completely true.” He said he had apologized. He didn’t specify what lies were told.
Last week, Johnston’s sister, Mercede, wrote on her blog that she believes her brother is “being controlled like a puppet.” The blog has sparked criticism from Levi Johnston’s attorney, Rex Butler, who has said Mercede wasn’t “privy to information from anyone with Team Levi.”
Bristol Palin recently signed on with a group to offer speeches on abstinence and “pro-life” issues, among other topics, and could receive between $15,000 and $30,000 per appearance, Palin family attorney Thomas Van Flein said in May.
Us Weekly executive editor Caroline Schaefer told NBC’S “Today” show that Bristol Palin approached the magazine looking for a platform to explain why she got engaged.
The couple is ready to get married but Palin told the magazine they’ll probably see a marriage counselor, Schaefer said, adding that Palin made it clear that Levi will have “a lot of work to do.” Schaefer said the couple hopes to get married within six weeks in a small ceremony in Alaska.
Asked whether the magazine paid for the interview, Schaefer would not discuss details of the arrangement except to say that the magazine paid for the expenses of the photo shoot.
No details about the wedding were released by family representatives Wednesday. But Miller said anything related to Sarah Palin is bound to draw celebrity attention.
“Clearly, a Bristol-Levi wedding would be covered with bated breath by press from Juneau to Washington, and all points in between,” he said.
• Associated Press Writer Rachel D’Oro contributed to this report from Anchorage.