Times are hard, but the pathway to fame in America has never been easier.
No talent is required — you can go on a shooting spree, give birth to octuplets or launch a homemade balloon from your backyard and tell the cops that your little boy is trapped inside.
Gripped by a stubborn recession and war anxiety, Americans remain the world's most ravenous consumers of a celebrity journalism that features nitwits and naifs over Nobel laureates.
Exhibit A is a person named Levi Johnston, who ascended to junior stardom by knocking up Sarah Palin's oldest daughter. He's not the first teenager who forgot to use a condom, but few others have milked their dumb mistake with such gusto.
There's Levi on CBS's The Early Show, ominously suggesting he knows dark secrets about Palin.
There he is being interviewed in Vanity Fair as if he were a matinee idol, and there he is again in the pages of GQ, diapering the new baby.
There he is on Tyra and the Larry King show. And there he is at the Teen Choice Awards, a hope-affirming presence for all young unwed fathers.
There he is again in a national TV commercial, breaking pistachio nuts while the announcer wryly says, "Now Levi Johnston does it with protection."
And, finally, there he is in Playgirl magazine, displaying every part of his anatomy except the one that propelled him into the headlines.
The spectacle isn't entirely Levi's fault. He didn't set out to be famous, but last fall he suddenly found himself in the spotlight -- presented to the world as the future son-in-law of the future vice president of the United States.
He was a popular kid, but he quit high school and had family problems, including a mother battling a drug habit. The McCain-Palin campaign dressed him up and gave him a prominent place next to pregnant Bristol at the Republican National Convention.
The couple would soon be married, Palin announced brightly, although Levi's facial expression didn't exactly radiate serenity.
He and Palin's daughter both deserve some sympathy. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a potential embarrassment to the campaign, which had been working to portray Palin as a conservative Christian crusading for traditional family values.
Levi and Bristol were given upright roles to play, and they hung in there until election day. Afterwards, the wedding plans were scuttled, baby Tripp was born and Levi says the Palins began to treat him coldly.
Instead of going back to Alaska and politely fading away, he hired a manager-slash-bodyguard. This, of course, is the American way. Nobody settles for just 15 minutes of fame.
Obviously it was explained to Levi that his marketability would be enhanced -- and fame prolonged -- if he could dish some dirt about Palin. It was a brand new role, but he warmed to it.
Levi now asserts that Palin isn't the all-American mom that she makes herself out to be -- for example, she doesn't really cook much at home!
At first she wanted to hide Bristol's pregnancy, he claims, and adopt the child herself. Worse, he says, she sometimes referred to her own infant with Down's syndrome as "the retarded baby."
That Levi was saying such things wasn't nearly so disturbing as some of the media's reaction, which was to treat the kid like he was Ben Bernanke expounding on long-term interest rates.
Even if Levi's stories are true, he isn't sharing them to save the country from a Palin presidency. He's hustling, period.
The irony is pungent. He owes his own overnight fame to the overnight fame of the woman he's bad-mouthing. They are forever joined as family by his fathering of a Palin, and are destined to orbit the tabloid universe in tandem.
Once Palin quit the governorship to give speeches and sell books, she refueled Levi's dubious celebrity. It's no accident that his Playgirl photo spread coincided with the rollout of her memoir.
The snippy war of words benefits both of them. She sells more books, he gets more face time on television. What other kid from Wasilla ever heard himself called out onOprah?
Certainly the media can be blamed for over-hyping Levi, but he'd evaporate like a moose burp if the public quit paying attention. We are easily and shamelessly intrigued.
So, for all you Levi Johnston fans, here's the latest: While hanging out at Hollywood's trendy Chateau Marmont, he said he might soon be Dancing With the Stars, and he's also considering -- hang on to your hockey sticks -- a gig on Survivor.
The networks say it's not true, but who are you going to believe?
A book deal can't be far off and, after that, maybe a reality show with Octomom and Balloon Boy.
Rock on, Levi. Give the people what they want.