January 11th, 2007

The Foreign Policy Implications of Ground Hog Day: Why Bush Is No Bill Murray

by Philip Baruth

Some posts just write themselves. You simply need to sit back, unwrap a pomegranate bran muffin, and let them.

groundhog day, the comedy

And that’s what we had planned to do this morning: run a still from Groundhog Day, alongside the complete lyrics of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”

That was it.

Any further commentary on the President’s escalation speech last night would be pointless, we thought.

But we’re sticklers for metaphor here at VDB, and finally the comparison between Bill Murray’s recurring Punxsutawney nightmare and George W. Bush’s maddeningly unvarying script on the War in Iraq seemed, well, specious.

Sure, Murray wakes up each morning in hell, precisely the same hell, down to the most minute detail — and so do we. Bush’s New Way Forward is neither new nor forward (although it is, arguably, a way).

But the difference between the two is the plot arc, and of course Ground Hog Day has a brilliant one, although it’s tied thematically to sameness and repetition and the endless loop of human self-blindness.

Once he realizes that time is not moving forward, and may never move forward again, Murray reacts like a spoiled child. He pouts, he shouts, he goes mad with power, and then finally he slides into a deep, lightless despair.

And then something happens: Murray learns, in a word. And by learning, he grows, and his capacity to feel expands correspondingly.

Danny Rubin’s script shows Murray finally using his endless eons in Punxsutawney to great human advantage: he comes to know all of the small tragedies that can strike a small city in a single day, and painstakingly he builds up a single, heroic routine that can unstrike them all.

Boy falling from an oak tree; caught. Man choking on a bolus of food; heimliched. Drunk dead of exposure or alcohol poisoning or old age or all three; still dead — because when all is said and done, some things are beyond the power of humans.

And so Murray learns grief and humility as well. And for a screwball comedy, it plays with more than a touch of authentic emotion.

Sprinting around a town he originally despised, guardian for a host of townspeople he originally patronized, Murray is all of the things this President will never be: humble, self-aware, and newly determined to avoid not simply the petty mistakes of the past, but the grand mistakes of the future.

And that’s what Americans wanted last night, during Bush’s oddly mechanical speech — it’s what they still want from the new Democratic Congress. Someone who knows that a boy is right now losing his balance in the oak tree, pinwheeling his arms. Someone who will sprint forward and catch him, save him.

Not someone who will let the boy fall to the sidewalk, and then send twenty thousand more just like him up into the branches.