February 2nd, 2014

Yes, it’s – Groundhog Day!

And so instead of resting this Sunday I’m reposting an old favorite. Really, what could be more appropriate on Groundhog Day than a repeat of an old essay about the movie, a personal favorite of mine?

[NOTE: For more on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the film, please see this and this.]

In discussions of the film “Groundhog Day” on this blog, I’ve noticed a couple of people questioning why the Bill Murray character would find Andie McDowell’s Rita deserving of all those years of his devotion and energy. For example, “…[W]hat, exactly, made the lovely but, let’s face it, vapid Rita worthy of Phil’s centuries of effort?”

My answer is that he discovered love. Yes, Rita was beautiful, and a good human being with many excellent qualities. But of course she was imperfect, and over the years (centuries? millennia?) Phil no doubt had learned just about all of her flaws. Still, it didn’t matter to him because it wasn’t about Rita, exactly—it was about the fact that, somewhere along the long path of his transformation to wisdom, he finally understood that every person in town, including the ones he couldn’t tolerate at the beginning, was worthy of his attention—and of something one might call “love,” in its broadest sense.

And somewhere along the way to that knowledge, Phil’s efforts in “Groundhog Day” stopped being about getting into Rita’s pants or even getting her to love him, although that certainly took up a larger percentage of his time (and the movie’s length) than some of his other pursuits. But he probably spent at least as much time learning to play the piano (a form of love, too), or to carve ice sculptures, or to become skilled at some of the more mindless and meaningless tricks he mastered, or learning details about the life of almost everyone in town.

Was the old derelict, whose life Phil tried to save over and over and over, “worth it” either? Such questions no longer mattered to him, because the gesture and the effort were worth it, and every life was worth something to him.

Rita, of course, had always been physically attractive to Phil. But as the film (and time) wore on—and on—she became the object not just of eros, but of agape as well. By the end of the movie, I think that Phil had come to appreciate the idea of the theme and variations versus the symphony, which I wrote about here:

And, although walking repeatedly in the same place is very different from traveling around the world and walking in a new place every day, is it really so very much less varied? It depends on the eye and mind of the beholder; the expansive imagination can find variety in small differences, and the stunted one can find boredom in vast changes.

And I submit that love is like that, too. Some people spend a lifetime with one love, one spouse; plumbing the depths of that single human being and what it means to be in an intimate relationship with him/her. Others go from relationship to relationship, never alighting with one person for very long, craving the variety.

It would seem on the face of it that the second type of person has the more exciting time in love. But it ain’t necessarily so. Either of these experiences can be boring or fascinating, depending on what we bring to it: the first experience is a universe in depth, and the second a universe in breadth. But both can contain multitudes.

Towards the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), Phil makes it clear that he has given up the pursuit of Rita entirely, and immersed himself in his love for her instead. Is this what finally frees him?

[NOTE: In the original post, there was a more complete version of the ending, but YouTube seems to have taken it down and this was the closest one I could find. To those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it won't seem like much, but trust me; in context, it's extraordinary, especially in contrast to Phil's original snarky personality.]

[ADDENDUM: In one of the links I recommended in the "UPDATE" above, I just noticed an error (maybe that's because it's the NY Times, natch). The article states, "Of course, this being an American film, he [Phil] not only attains spiritual release but also gets the producer [Rita] into bed.”

Well, that may be literally true; on the final night, Rita and Phil do sleep in the same bed. But what the writer is implying—that they have sex—is completely untrue. Note, also, the snide “American film” reference.]

[ADDENDUM II: I also just noticed that, surprisingly enough, the other essayist, Michael P. Foley, makes the same error as the Times. He writes:

I should add, though, that the movie is not perfect. Rita’s final “redemption” of Phil, for instance, results in their sleeping together the next morning. (Call it the incense that had to be thrown on the Hollywood fire.)

I am quite surprised that so many thoughtful viewers of the movie have made such an elementary error. But it seems quite common. How odd. As commenter "Ed Bonderenka" points out, "Rita says, the next morning, that Phil fell asleep the night before."

That's not to say that Phil foreswears sex. We can be fairly certain that, when he returns to normal time with Rita, sex is part of their lives.]

49 Responses to “Yes, it’s – Groundhog Day!”

  1. Yancey Ward Says:

    It is a good question how long Phil was trapped then- the movie never says. I find it curious you think it might be centuries (or millenia!!). I have always put the limit at about 10 years or less.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Yancey Ward:

    I am somewhat of an outlier. Most people estimate many years, but under a century. I guess I think a mind is a difficult thing to change—because I think longer.

    But I don’t mind shorter. That’s a more optimistic point of view.

  3. Jim Sullivan Says:

    Wow. The Wikipedia article for the movie says that the writer of the story estimated over 10,000 years was the span of time in the movie.

    I absolutely hated this movie the first time I watched it. But it has grown on me over the years. Now I watch it whenever I find it on TV.

  4. Anarchus Says:

    Personally, I think the movie would have been much improved if there had been another love interest for Phil, and his evolution over the period would have included his falling in love with the relatively unattractive woman (NOT Rita), who may have been homely and living a dull life but possessed a good and giving heart.

  5. Alex Bensky Says:

    Oh, yes, it’s an American movie so there has to be sex at the end, unlike all those arty French movies.

  6. Katherine Says:

    My favorite line of the movie, and the turning point, he says, “I have come to the end of myself”.

  7. Buzz Says:

    While it would have reinforced the PC message that homely and dull are attractive, I fail to see how that would “much improve” a movie that is already really good. Perhaps she could have a eating disorder also. Maybe die of cancer at the end.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Anarchus:

    Ah, but Rita was beautiful AND she had “a good and loving heart.”

    In one of the movie’s scenes (after Phil has revealed his secret to her), Rita falls asleep in Phil’s bed one evening while they’re reading poetry aloud, and Phil says to her while she’s asleep:

    What I wanted to say was…I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you…something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could…I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.

    That makes it clear he loves her not just because of her outer beauty but her inner beauty as well. Both.

  9. Jim S. Says:

    I’ve always thought Phil was trapped for centuries or millennia as well. That’s because he not only learned everything that happened that day, but he had it constantly memorized. He could say, at any moment anywhere in town, “In eight seconds, blah blah blah is going to happen.” You couldn’t have that kind of intimate instinctive knowledge of the entire town in just a few decades.

  10. Steve Says:

    Why did he continue to pursue Rita? Maybe he only had a memory of the previous day and his ‘progress’ was the natural result of his decisions evolving from the previous day to the current day. If he was able to recall many previous days, the monotony would probably have driven him to do whatever is necessary to bring the situation to an end as soon as possible (i.e., far less than 10+ years).

  11. On Groundhog Day | Insomniac memos Says:

    [...] liked this discussion of why Rita was worth Phil’s attention. It was ultimately about finding love. And why did the [...]

  12. Ken Says:

    Was the old derelict, whose life Phil tried to save over and over and over, “worth it” either?

    This was the most meaningful part of the film. The futility of most if not all our efforts in life is incredibly difficult to face. No matter who we are, no matter what we do, in the long run it doesn’t matter. We will go extinct. Our sun will burn out. The universe will go suffer a heat death. The movie makes this very dramatic by showing this old man dying, tragically over and over, no matter what Phil does. To face this futility in as raw a form as Phil did and choose to move forward, even with his what may have been centuries long depression, as he ultimately did, is heroic.

  13. Seabisquit Says:

    It is just a movie and the author had his own meaning, but it all made much more sense to me when I changed the perspective. Instead of thinking why Phil had to go through all that to gain Rita I thought of it as to what he went through for her benefit.
    I thought of if someone had been praying for a companion/spouse perfect for them then whose prayer would have been answered here. Phil does not go through all this so he can get Rita or deserve Rita. He goes through it so he will be right for her; the answer to her prayer – said or unsaid. Almost had me a faith building moment then but for remembering it is fiction after all.

  14. Eric Says:

    Steve Says: “If he was able to recall many previous days, the monotony would probably have driven him to do whatever is necessary to bring the situation to an end as soon as possible (i.e., far less than 10+ years).”

    It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the movie, but IIRC, when he first realizes he’s trapped in the same day over and over, he tries to kill himself, or at least tests the limits of his daily reincarnation, by running the car off a cliff for example.

    But when that doesn’t work, he realizes the only way out of it is to work his way through every trial of the day, including learning not to mock the people of the town, helping others instead of ignoring their troubles, etc. Because his initial attraction to Rita was essentially unholy, he had to learn to appreciate a woman for more than a bounce in bed. That required him to pursue Rita.

  15. John Says:

    I’d say the time period is in the 10-year range — multiplying that by a factor of up to 1,000 would have likely included a mental/emotional aging that would have made the quest for Rita immaterial by the time Phil reaches February 3 (and as far as the memorization shown in the film, he only really has to memorize the early morning events, since everything is shown to be adjustable by Phil within the day, so that like the ripples of a pond, Phil’s different actions in each day cause different reactions, which then radiate out from the moment his actions change after waking up in bed).

    Of course, the real mystery to me 21 years after the movie came out is if Phil ever fully made his peace with Ned Ryerson.

  16. Ted Says:

    It is clear at the end of the movie that while Phil had fallen asleep the night before (presumably expecting the day to reset again), he and Rita do have sex the in the morning after he sees that it’s a new day and jumps back in bed with her. The clear implication is that some time has passed when they walk out together.

    I know that some people have suggested that the movie takes place over many years or even centuries, but to me that would be horrible. I’d like to think it was a few months to a year — as long as it would take for Phil to get to know everyone in town and learn to play piano pretty well after a daily lesson. Any longer and it would go from being a nice fantasy to the myth of Sisyphus.

  17. RFT Says:

    I’ve seen a couple of interviews with Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) where he said he believed Phil was stuck for thousands of years.

  18. tim maguire Says:

    I never really wondered how long Phil was stuck in Groundhog’s Day until I saw the online debate (i guess I just assumed a year or two).

    If it were more than a decade, then the ending ruins the movie. If we’re talking a century, never mind a millennium, the impact would be psychologically devastating, with Phil reduced to a gibbering mess who never got out of bed. And if he did get out of the timeline, the event would be terrifying. He’s so used to knowing everything, including that he will wake up the next day, that reentering the unknown of normal life would be more than he could cope with.

  19. Astro Says:

    I’d read an article by someone who studies such things that said to be really accomplished on a musical instrument takes about 10,000 hours of practice. So assuming one hour of practice per day, that’s 10,000 days or 27 years. Of course, we only see Phil playing one song, so it wouldn’t take 27 years to be excellent at just one song, maybe only 1/10th as long – but who could stand to play just one song for 3 years? So maybe it is closer to 27 years.
    But, it’s not just piano playing he gets good at; there are a lot of things he learns. Which makes me think the time span gets pushed out closer to a century.

  20. Artfldgr Says:

    Blasio dropped phil…

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    G Day, where the Groundhog comes out…. eh?

    Phil mostly saw women as an entertainment venue, like a party, and not as a life partner. Mostly he had no life apart from his pleasures and social status.

    Once he got stuck in God’s sand glass, he pursued pleasure to the ends of the Earth, and found it meaningless. Thus individuals that did not get conquered by him easily, or at all, started to take on a more meaningful, existential, value. They were harder to get. Harder to get, meant more valuable and more rare, to the person that can have everything and anything, within the limits of his hourglass prison. The grass is always greener on the outside. Attraction is felt much better from a balanced dose of courtship and prioritization of greater goals.

    Phil’s “efforts” amounted to no more than the PUArtist’s desire to get sex and babes, for personal and social status elevation. It was only when he achieved satoh or enlightenment, and gave up his worldly desires, that he began on the road to pursuing beauty as a goal in and of itself, not merely as a utility for man. The ice sculpture pointed out that the time was already there for him, mostly.

    Phil was given a kind of immortality. Pleasure and ultimate domain over his territory (or prison) went through a cycle of acceptance and rejection. Then at a certain point, his spirit and soul was freed from his human constraints, thus achieving escape. Phil could no more let someone die in his domain than he would allow his employees to perform badly, because it reflected badly on him. But while in the beginning it was a sort of grand narcissistic campaign to elevate his own status in his own eye, eventually he truly came to care for those in his domain, his eternal prison. Even though he had attained or been given a special place amongst Creation itself, he had not the power to reverse time, reverse death, create life, or anything of the kind attributed to true Divine Power. So he sought the closest emulation, spiritual and physical perfection through effort and will. Phil obtained power, and in obtaining power he also obtained the weight of responsibility. Yet for all that, his power could not exceed the realm of the Divine, the absolute Equality of Death. When he was a weak plaything of his own desires, Phil could never look up at the Divine powers that were above him and truly respect the greater powers that be. Phil had never had such powers and believed that anyone who did, would be weak or evil or a gluttony for pleasure. That’s how he became when he acquired almost divine level immortality. Only when a person truly becomes strong, independent, and willful of mind, soul, and body, judging for himself, by himself, can he look up above at the cosmos and recognize the difference between the scales of power that differentiates the mortals and the immortals. Those that are limited by death and those who are not limited by death. Phil could only save a limited number of people, yet he knew the power to save life and transcend death existed, he was proof of it.

    From someone who watches a lot of Japanese and Eastern cultural/historical/philosophy based material, it was an unexpected story and movie. The title was somewhat misleading too.

    Someone previously told me that my reaction to movies is mostly because of what I bring to it, which is true. It doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else. And when the masses often like to convince the “public” that a certain viewpoint is right, I also tend to react predictably.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    I know that some people have suggested that the movie takes place over many years or even centuries, but to me that would be horrible. I’d like to think it was a few months to a year — as long as it would take for Phil to get to know everyone in town and learn to play piano pretty well after a daily lesson. Any longer and it would go from being a nice fantasy to the myth of Sisyphus.

    if obtaining enlightenment was that easy, everyone would be doing it, and playing it up on tv like yoga classes.

  23. MEC2 Says:

    It’s not even love so much he finally pursues, but joy – the one thing missing from his previous life. It’s why he immerses himself finally in the human experience, playing an instrument, ice carving, and most importantly, in his human interactions. It’s not just Rita he finds joy with, it’s everyone – including Ned Ryerson.

  24. MathMom Says:

    I read some time back that the writer or producer or director (can’t remember) said that Phil spent about 10 years in Groundhog Day. Odd that Wiki says 10,000 years? I think his change (and is various doctoral degrees, learning French, becoming an accomplished jazz pianist) could have been attained in 10 years, especially since he didn’t have many distractions.

    I didn’t like it the first time I watched it, but now, as per Jim Sullivan, I watch it whenever I find it on TV. And I also own it! So that is weird, eh?

    I was finally hooked on the movie by watching Phil grow, from a vain, narcissistic, shallow individual who judged people by their looks, used them for his own pleasure and threw them away, or treated his fellow man with contempt, to a person who cared about others and derived deep satisfaction from trying to make a difference.

    From simple things, like bringing coffee and suggesting a better location for the shoot, to the scene above – I liked Phil so much better at the end, that I actually like Bill Murray, too, and if he’s in a movie I’m inclined to give it a look.

    Agape. Yes.

  25. Ymarsakar Says:

    I didn’t like it the first time I watched it

    How much life experience did you have when you first watched it vs when you started liking it, MathM?

  26. neo-neocon Says:

    MathMom:

    Each change or skill alone would probably take at least 10 years of steady practice, some less but some more. Add them all together, plus learning everything about everyone in town, and when it is that everything happens, and all the attempts to kill himself or bed Rita or other women, and all the things you don’t see, and you get at least 100 years and probably even more, IMHO.

  27. neo-neocon Says:

    MEC2:

    It’s finding joy with Ned Ryerson that may just be the biggest—and least likely—achievement of all.

  28. luagha Says:

    Harold Ramis said that in the initial script, he intended for Phil to be stuck for about ten thousand years. What came out in the movie was more like ten years.

    There was a recent pleasantly pedantic essay posted that went through all the skill learning involved and indicated it could be done by someone reasonably determined in about 34 years.

  29. Kibbles n Bits Says:

    Couple of things to add:

    1. Rita was the only one to turn down all of Phil’s sexual advances, regardless of how sophisticated or polished his approach. That elevated her.

    2. I think the real key though, is that when Phil embarked on his journey of self-improvement it was Rita who provided the roadmap. She defined perfection. Recall from their conversation in the diner her list of things she would look for in a perfect mate. Phil in his flawed state had nothing better to go on, so he proceeded down the path she had lain out. In the end he had not only significantly improved himself by any objective measure, he had also made himself the perfect companion for her. That explains her complete and unquestioning acceptance of who he had become in the end, and why they were then fated to be together.

  30. Alice Says:

    No, clearly it is centuries or even millennia.

    Early in the movie, on the way to the movie theater, he jokes he has seen Heidi 2 a hundred times. So that is a third of a year right there. The scene in the bar shows he gets one more sentence “right” every day, but no farther. So one night he gets the drink, one night the toast, one night the chocolates, with dozens of nights wrong in between. Think of how he learns the French poem for dinner—that is dozens of days learning even one line of French plus several dozens for finding the right poem because he tried 10 others first that doesn’t impress her. Another year or several right there, just for one more line with Rita.

    Assume it takes ten years of practicing several hours a day to learn to play piano like that. Another ten to twenty to sculpt ice, another ten to twenty years to get each skill. Knowing every accident in town? For hundreds of people and getting it right? Hundreds of years.

  31. Alice Says:

    No, Tim McGuire, he *was * a gibbering mess
    And it lasts so long he comes out of it.

  32. Mellow Says:

    He didn’t immerse himself in her. Taking up the piano, perfecting his groundhog speech, helping the old ladies, the Heimlich, catching the kid, and the insurance guy was not about Rita.

    He began living for himself, becoming a better man and being able to look beyond himself. All of that improvement came after he found out that he had a pointless life (“Don’t drive angry” and the bank robbery). His original pursuit of Rita was all about him. He had to live and find meaning in his life. His time with Rita through all those cycles was time spent with a close friend. Rita finally fell for a whole different man.

    He only got his “reward”, Rita reciprocating his feelings, when he could enjoy life and give back to the world.

  33. Ymarsakar Says:

    There’s no need for just one interpretation. Try not to get fixated on there being an objective lens through which to view the universe, because there is not one.

    Unless a person can ascend to Divine levels, at least.

    This is intended for the general audience, not a specific person.

    The nice thing about fictional accounts is that open interpretation is available. There’s no risk of getting it wrong and a bridge collapsing or a person being hurt personally. The characters in the movie are archetypes, not quite fictional and not quite real either. When it comes to things that can be tested in this world, one answer being the right answer has merits. In the world of art or fiction, or quantum mechanics, there’s often no need to go down one path alone.

  34. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    There are many things I love about this movie, but one of the things I love best is the thoughtful, wise and apparently endless — in a good way! — discussion it has triggered in Neo’s annual February posts on the subject. It’s just one little movie, on first viewing not much more than light comedy — and yet it has lead to so much enlightenment.

  35. Groundhog’s Day Semi Review | Sake White Says:

    [...] http://neoneocon.com/2014/02/02/yes-its-groundhog-day/ [...]

  36. Ymarsakar Says:

    The Japanese material I regularly see generally has several clues leading to the same concepts or themes. That’s why the movie surprised me in tackling such high level constructs. I do believe I only watched it because of Neo’s constant yearly regulation posting of it.

    When people, in general, like something, I’ve come to expect the direct opposite reaction when I get to it. Now if people had said back then, what they said now, that they hated or found it boring, that would have motivated to watch it much sooner.

  37. Steve Poling Says:

    While considering the mix of agape and eros in the heart of Bill Murray’s character, you might also include storge, the love of the familiar and homely, for after decades in this little town, everything and everyone would have the well-worn feeling of one’s favorite slippers.

  38. Dfolds Says:

    The repetitions took place in just one day. Not years or decades or millennia. That’s kinda the point. He was stuck in that day alone until he resolved the infatuation with Rita. Perhaps in a multi verse he could experience them simultaneously, but in our universe they seemed sequential. He learned, grew, and actualized on that pivotal day.

  39. Ymarsakar Says:

    I think people are referring to the subjective time experienced, rather than how long it took from other perspectives or relativities.

    Movies tend to cut out a lot of time and details, although it was a good thing this movie cut out a lot of the small details. Even time loops can become boring if things keep repeating too often.

  40. Reid Says:

    Why Rita? Because she said “no”. One can go overboard playing hard to get, but a substantial portion of the value we place on people and things is related to how hard it is to get them, and the sense of accomplishment and pride in succeeding.

  41. MathMom Says:

    Ymarsakar -

    Great question! I know I didn’t see it until it was at least 5 years old, because I lived overseas for a long time and returned in 1997 (it would have been 4 years old then), and I didn’t first see it for a long time after I got home. So I watched it once, and it didn’t do much for me, but I probably watched it a second time because it came on while I was folding laundry. That’s the way I see a lot of television. I remember wanting to see it again, rented it, and eventually bought it on DVD.

    I’d say from first contact to really liking – probably started when I was about 45 and got to liking it in a year or so.

  42. MathMom Says:

    Neo-neocon -

    Each change or skill alone would probably take at least 10 years of steady practice, some less but some more.

    Dunno about that. My stepson went from zero on piano to beyond Phil’s skill level in 18 months. He decides to learn a language, and becomes competent in six months. Fluency takes a little longer. He is fluent in Spanish, French and Japanese (and of course English), and does well enough in Korean. He got a BS in electrical engineering and a Master’s in Math in four years at University of Virginia. He did all of the above in the space of less than 7 calendar years. So it can be done.

  43. blert Says:

    Murray’s character went from Beta to Alpha.

    At start he’s an arrogant visiting no-body.

    At the end, he’s the king of the town.

    Rita finally wants to chase him.

    Until then, NO MAN is high enough on her hypergamy meter to be pursued — by her.

    High quality babes can’t be chased after.

    They insist on doing the chasing — at the extreme upper level of the male spectra.

  44. neo-neocon Says:

    MathMom:

    You stepson is highly unusual.

    Most people can study piano for 20 years and not get to that skill level, even if they practice daily.

    And by the way, in some people, foreign language, math, and musical skills are linked.

    In the movie, Phil showed no indication of special gifts in any of those fields prior to his long sojourn in Groundhog Day.

    Interesting sidelight: Bill Murray supposedly did the piano playing himself in the film. He’s a skilled pianist (no, he didn’t learn just for the film :-) ).

  45. neo-neocon Says:

    Dfolds:

    Yes, but Phil didn’t experience it as one day, he experienced it as a sequence of days. He retained the memory of each, even if no one else did. If he had not retained the memory of each, he would not have learn and grown.

    So if you add them up, how long would the experience have lasted, translated into conventional time?

  46. MathMom Says:

    neo-neocon -

    Cool that he played the piano for the film himself. Didn’t know that. Thx.

  47. MathMom Says:

    Mark Steyn weighs in on Groundhog Day!”

  48. Bill Woods Says:

    “Rita was the only one to turn down all of Phil’s sexual advances,”
    Well, Ned Ryerson does too….

    In the director’s commentary, Ramis says, “Bill doing a pretty good job of miming this piano piece”, so he may be a pianist but I don’t think he actually played for the movie.

    Ramis also mentions the figure of “about ten years”, but that’s not set in stone. Inside the film, the longest indications are Phil saying he’s seen Heidi II over a hundred times (and of course he wouldn’t have done that every day), and the card-flipping scene. Phil assures Rita that if she practiced, “Six months, four to five hours a day, you’d be an expert.”
    “Is this what you do with eternity?”
    “Now you know.”

    Jonah Goldberg’s essay on why the film’s a classic:
    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/228088/movie-all-time-jonah-goldberg

  49. Bill Woods Says:

    Oh, I forgot the piano lessons. Ramis says that Murray did try to learn the piano for the film, and he is playing in those scenes. “He got about that far.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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