A Different Kind of Neighbor
Even by the standards of his day, Mr. Rogers was doing something different.
Fred Rogers died twenty years ago this month. Those who spent any time in his neighborhood called him Mr. Rogers, a fair title for a friendly teacher.
Early in his television career, Mr. Rogers sat in a burgundy leather chair behind a long, wooden table in Sen. John Pastore’s subcommittee on communications. As Mr. Rogers was set to begin speaking, Pastore granted him permission by saying, “Alright, Rogers, you got the floor,” in a tone of voice that managed to convey both skeptical anticipation and ironic warmth. Mr. Rogers was in Washington because President Nixon wanted to decrease his predecessor’s proposed funding for public television from $20 million to $10 million. Pastore, who seemed to have prided himself on his own rigidity, was no match for a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh whose job it was to put people at ease on television.
After explaining that he trusted the senator from Rhode Island to eventually read his own description of the theory behind his work, Mr. Rogers told Pastore that his program dealt with “the inner drama of childhood,” including events such as “getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.”
Something must have struck Pastore when Mr. Rogers was describing his half-hour daily show: He asked to see an episode of the program. Mr. Rogers shared some lines that he kept on the backburner of his mind, but which he always managed to communicate with the enthusiasm of someone who had just discovered their truth: He shared with the senator that his audience hears, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you,” and that his viewers learn that “feelings are mentionable and manageable.”
He concluded his testimony by sharing the lines of a song called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” The lyrics are something of fervorino, encouraging listeners to see the good in self-knowledge, restraint, and maturity. The final lines read: “For a girl can be someday a lady / And a boy can be someday a man.”
Pastore hardly let Mr. Rogers take a breath, and said, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” It ended up being $22 million.
This rather brief testimony from a 1969 hearing is proof enough that Mr. Rogers would be worth remembering for his strangeness. As Mr. Rogers proved, good politics—or at least successful politics—is not about trying to appear normal. Could a forty-one-year-old man about to fall off his seat while talking about a “neighborhood expression of care” be described as normal?
By today’s standards, at least, Mr. Rogers’s television tunes stray far away from socially acceptable behavior. “Boys are boys from the beginning—if you were born a boy, you stay a boy. Girls are girls right from the start—if you were born a girl, you stay a girl and grow up to be a lady.”
Today's degenerates who view these truths as problematic did not have Mr. Rogers playing on their VCRs when they were growing up, I suppose—and, more importantly, did not have parents who did what Mr. Rogers did. The minuscule minority of activists pushing gender madness would hardly be a problem were it not for the effeminate men and men-wannabes who actually listen to them. I refer here to the great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies, as Boris Johnson would call them, who occupy seats on school boards, public television commissions, regulatory bodies, accreditation agencies, and so on.
Even by the standards of his day, however, Mr. Rogers was doing something different. A "Macho Man" might have criticized Mr. Rogers for his docility. The godless communists of his day—our moment wasn’t created in a vacuum—might have done the same because of the clearly Christian overtones and occasional bits of catechetical social teaching interspersed throughout his program. That was the genius of it. If you criticized Mr. Rogers too loudly, you revealed yourself to be socially unadjusted or intentionally subversive.
What has changed between then and now, when we elevate the unadjusted and give the subversive a seat at the head table? Mr. Rogers was probably asking the same questions about his own time; he was, after all, a conservative Christian trained in theology, practiced in media, and naturally attentive to psychology.
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While the environment of his day was certainly more enthusiastic for a Mr. Rogers with a profile on public television, it is clear that he still had to fight for that position. Mr. Rogers could have enjoyed a lucrative career in the private sphere and taught vacation bible school during his summers. But he decided to impose himself upon the public, perhaps for his own good or the good of his family, but ultimately for the good of the nation.
One of the strangest caricatures of Fred Rogers is that he told children that they could be whomever they want to be. I can’t find evidence that he said this, and I would be surprised if he did: It is a fundamentally non-Christian idea. Mr. Rogers saw himself and his audience as made in the image of God, and therefore as beings called to something both universal and particular.
Public television will one day be reclaimed as a force for what is real and good, and the embarrassing displays of today will be dismissed as mind-warping bombardment. In the meantime, the nation is better for having seen Fred Rogers realize the beautiful days in his neighborhood.