Longing for Mr. Rogers

rogers and clemmons

America’s preposterous debate over “civility” in politics has somehow tumbled into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, of all places.  Friday before last, protesters in Tampa, Florida confronted the state’s Republican attorney general at a showing of the documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which traces the career of the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers. They demanded to know what Mr. Rogers would think about the politician’s positions on immigration and healthcare.  Bondi responded, aptly enough: “I’m not Mr. Rogers.”

True facts stated. Bondi is just the latest Republican figure to be publicly assailed by activists, following the culinary misadventures of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Critics say that such aggressive confrontations illustrate the coarsening of public discourse; some even detect a whiff of fascism in the mob mentality of progressives harassing conservative political figures. Supporters see these episodes as necessary acts of public shaming.

All of this is most ironic because the current vogue for Mr. Rogers unmistakably reflects a longing for a gentler time. It does not require a PhD in psychology to recognize that Americans are looking back to the TV pioneer because of the atmosphere of unkindness and vulgarity that permeates our cultural moment. The president is a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals.  He is also a man who thinks it is funny and politically savvy to traumatize immigrant toddlers.  Trump is, quite emphatically, not asking “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

For Americans of my generation, Fred Rogers cast a somewhat hazy figure: a gentle, nice old man who wore droopy sweaters and played with puppets.  I do not remember watching the show much as a kid, but I feel like it was always on in the background.  Certainly, it did not occur to me that what Rogers was doing was “radical,” as it is described in director Morgan Neville’s film.

Except that it was. The benefit of hindsight makes what once seemed small look big, and what was just “nice” look revolutionary.  Rogers came to the fore just after the golden age of television, around the time that FCC chairman Newton Minow famously decried the “vast wasteland” of commercial television in 1961. Not long before, idealists thought that TV could be the agent of mass education and enlightenment.  Instead, it became the vehicle of Leave It to Beaver and Brill cream ads.

Some educational television existed at the time Mr. Rogers started his career, but it was mostly local and fragmented.  Children’s programming was in its infancy.  It was not until Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967—one of the least heralded, yet most significant legacies of the Great Society—that sustained institutional support for educational TV arrived in the US on a national level.  This law is why we have Sesame Street, which, like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was considered a groundbreaking and experimental program in its time.

As Neville’s film shows, Rogers was a quiet revolutionary.  Against the backdrop of the traumas of the 1960s—assassinations, riots, the Vietnam War—his program set out to provide a calm, cooing voice of reason, a refuge for children finding their way in the world.  He had studied to be a minister, and he brought a pastor’s approach to talking to children about subjects such as death, divorce, and violence.  Without proselytizing for a minute, he adopted a style that was nonetheless suffused with his own inner conviction of Christian compassion.

One of the most moving moments in the film deals with the character of Officer Clemmons, played by François Scarborough Clemmons.  The actor was gay at a time when such an identity was verboten—and certainly not to be associated with a children’s show.  Rogers scolded Clemmons for being seen at a gay bar, because it could endanger the program.  Thus we see one notable instance in which the beloved icon did come up short morally and ethically.  He was kind and compassionate, but he was not quite ready for LGBT rights in the early 1970s.

Yet this moment speaks to the much bigger, and far more reassuring truth of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  In a time of Trump, Weinstein, and #MeToo, it is a huge relief to watch the film and not see an exposé of the dark side of a man in public life.

Fred Rogers was not perfect, but he was definitely not a predator.  He might have been cowardly with respect to Clemmons’s sexuality, but he still wanted the actor to be an integral part of the show.  A simple scene of the two men sharing a foot bath in 1969, water sluicing over their bare feet, sends a profound message—especially given the long history of white Americans trying to keep African Americans out of spaces such as public pools.

Mr. Rogers wanted to share the foot bath, the neighborhood, and the world itself with anyone who showed up—a neighborliness that we need more of today, and that too many seem to have forgotten.  “The greatest thing we can do is to let someone know that they’re loved,” Mr. Rogers said, “and that they’re capable of loving.”