It’s a testament to true romance: If Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are back together, maybe love can conquer all—even if your parents hate your fiancé’s guts. While it seems Sarah Palin has made peace at least publicly with her daughter’s recently announced engagement, some within the family are less than pleased. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Ben Barber, Bristol’s ex-boyfriend, described how surprised he was by the news—and how upset her brother Track was to hear it.
Speaking from Delta Junction, Alaska, where he is working as an electrician for the summer, 20-year-old Barber said he was blindsided by news that Bristol and Levi had reunited. Barber says he and Bristol got together just after Christmas last year, and only broke up two months ago. He maintains that Bristol did not leave him for her former flame—though he acknowledges that Bristol and Levi did begin dating anew about six weeks ago.
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“She was totally anti-Levi. I heard from a friend and then Bristol told me the next day, ‘You’re going to be mad. I’ve been talking to Levi.’ I didn’t care, but this is really surprising, you go from hating Levi to marrying Levi in two to three months,” Barber said.
Barber, a Wasilla native, has known the Palins for years and says he’s close friends with the Palins’ eldest son, Track. Johnston and Barber were also friends; the two played hockey together, and Barber was set to be one of Levi’s groomsmen, as news that Bristol was pregnant by Levi was followed by wedding plans. Bristol’s struggles with her baby’s father led her directly into Barber’s arms, the ex says.
“Bristol called me angry about Levi and then we just fell into place. It was good and then went downhill. I helped her out with Tripp more than Levi ever did,” Barber said. “What does Levi have going for him? Nothing. He’s probably the worst person to give fame to anyways.”
Barber is clearly miffed that Bristol and Levi are back together. “I don’t understand how Bristol can go and spend her life with someone who can’t get his GED? What’s he going to do when all this stuff has run out on him?”
Barber may sound like a lover scorned. But it’s clear he respects the Palins—especially Todd, whom he described throughout the interview as “the coolest guy.” He said that Track and Todd had invited him to fish with them last weekend in Dillingham, but he couldn’t get out of work to meet up with them. Barber was in Wasilla with the family when they first found out the couple had reunited.
“[Bristol] never had a good relationship with her Mom and Dad, so not telling them [about the engagement] doesn’t surprise me. But I know the whole family isn’t happy about it. I was in town for a night and stopped by to see Todd and Track. They were furious.”
Barber says upon hearing the news he went outside with Track and asked him what he thought of the rekindled romance. Barber said Track was “disappointed and didn’t approve of the situation”—so much so, Barber says, that Track called his sister two four-letter pejoratives.
By contrast, Barber says Levi handled the news that he had gotten together with Bristol rather well. “It really surprised me. When Levi did find out, he was very mature about the situation. He was more happy that it was me with Tripp and Bristol than someone he didn’t like. I still wanted to be friends, but Bristol wouldn’t let me do that.” Barber admits that he then dropped Levi as a buddy. “I feel pretty low as a friend for doing that,” he says, adding he doubts he’ll be asked back as a groomsman this time around.
According to Barber, the constant attention on her family has taken its toll on Bristol. “She totally swapped personalities,” Barber said. “She used to be super passionate and a really nice person. Two or three years ago she was super cool. And around Christmas time she was the same Bristol. But now a lot of this has gone to her head. Her mom’s, too.”
Bristol and Levi are two of the only people in America who have the capacity to generate a bigger response than Sarah Palin herself. Now everyone seems to be talking publicly.
“What does Levi have going for him? Nothing. He’s probably the worst person to give fame to anyways.”
The Palin camp wouldn't comment for this article. But they did release a statement Wednesday when US Weekly hit the stands. "Bristol at 19 is now a young adult. 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.
"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."
Speculation is running rampant that Bristol and Levi may do a reality TV show about their love and impending marriage. And it’s clear that Levi is still very much under the influence of his Anchorage-based attorney, Rex Butler. Barber said that Levi told him they share a bank account. “A way to get out of taxes,” Levi says, according to Barber. (Butler did not respond to requests for comment).
The family dynamic could, of course, affect Sarah Palin’s decision about whether to run for president in 2012. And Levi, who has been at odds with the family, and granting tell-all interviews, is the wildest of wild cards—drawing sharp rebukes from his future mother-in-law.
There’s no question that family is a vital part of Sarah Palin’s political narrative. On the 2008 campaign trail, Palin spoke frequently about her son Track’s military service, and her experiences dealing with her son Trig’s Down Syndrome. During her public appearances since the campaign, she has often mentioned Bristol’s life as a young mother.
As Barber said quite succinctly, “They may go get married, make however much money, and call it quits.” Barber says he texted Bristol last night, asking whether she was pregnant again. No, came the answer, Barber says.
Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at Fox News from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.