. . . We Need Mister Rogers More Than Ever
JUNE 6, 2018 BY PAUL ASAY, of Watching God
Photo: Fred Rogers on the set of his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jim Judkis
On Feb. 2, 1968—Groundhog Day—Simon & Garfunkel recorded the final version of their classic song “Mrs. Robinson” for their album Bookends. It includes one of the most poignant lines in all of pop music:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
“I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply,” Paul Simon later told The New York Times. And indeed, in early 1968, they were. The country was mired in the Vietnam War. Protests raged at home. The country had never felt so divided, so angry. After the heroics of World War II and the unbridled American self-confidence of the 1950s, the United States must’ve felt like a stick bent to its breaking point, ready to splinter.
The country needed a hero.
On Feb. 19, 1968, just 17 days after Simon & Garfunkel put Mrs. Robinson in Bookends, it got one.
Most folks didn’t know it yet, of course. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, featuring a rather un-telegenic, soft-spoken minister as its host, director, singer, writer and puppeteer, was meant for kids too young to tie their shoes, much less write think-pieces for The New Yorker. But as Focus Features’ new, wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor (out in theaters beginning this weekend) illustrates, he was a good hero for those turbulent times. And, I think, the sort of hero we need more than ever.
Fred Rogers wasn’t a television novice when he launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on NET (the forerunner to PBS) in 1968. He’d worked on a show called The Children’s Corner for Pittsburgh’s WQED years before, introducing Daniel Tiger when (according to the movie) one of the live show’s ancient film clips broke.
But if Daniel’s introduction to the world of television was a spontaneous thing, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was anything but. As Neighbor unpacks for us, Rogers carefully thought through every word and lyric, almost every moment, crafting a show that would never talk down to its young viewers but wrap an arm around them and talk to them. Rogers called the space between his cameras and his viewers’ televisions “holy ground,” and indeed something sacrosanct took place there.
When you contrast what Mister Rogers did back then with our own frenetic entertainment culture—heck, with our entire national climate—it’s striking to see the difference, and feel just what we’re lacking. Consider:
David Newell (left) and Fred Rogers (right) from the show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: Lynn Johnson
He was quiet. “For Fred, silence was his delight,” we’re told in Neighbor. We’re treated to a montage of some of the many times that he stopped talking and just let his audience … listen.
Most folks would call that “dead air,” back then as they would now. Today, to sit in silence is practically a cultural sin. We bring our phones and devices of distraction with us wherever we go, even into the toilet stall. I do, too. It’s like we can’t stand to be alone with ourselves. To grow quiet. To think. Rogers reminds us that when we lose silence, we lose much more. We lose, maybe, a bit of ourselves.
He listened. This might be one of the most remarkable things I was struck with watching Neighbor: How well he listened to those around him—no matter how young they were, no matter what they said. Children might tell him something funny. Or tragic. Or profound. He treated each missive as a gift—an almost sacred message, from one child of God to another.
I used to think of myself as a good listener. I’m not so sure anymore. I “talk” for a living, here and elsewhere. And sometimes, even when I’m listening even to the people most precious in my life, I feel my attention wander. I can feel my eyes darting, looking for the next distraction; search the conversation for another opportunity to let folks know what I think. How many times have I lost an opportunity to listen and learn? How many moments have I lost to create a greater connection? More broadly, how many of our societal ills and angsts could be treated and even healed through just … listening? I think we’d be surprised.
Fred Rogers (left) with Francois Scarborough Clemmons (right) from his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: John Beale
He was gentle, but strong. In Neighbor, we see scenes aplenty when Rogers’ famous gentleness was mocked and lampooned. And indeed, his ultra-sincere persona and curious, almost lyrical-sounding voice can foster a very Rogers-esque stereotype of a milquetoast man. Truth is, he was anything but. He stood for things and, once he found his footing, never wavered from them. He stared down congress. He fought for racial equality. The very first week Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on the air, according to Neighbor, Rogers tackled the Vietnam War.
Today, we see politicians and pundits bluster and blow like big, bad wolves—huffing and puffing, bellowing and retracting what they just bellowed. Rogers did Theodore Roosevelt one better: He spoke quietly, and instead of carrying a stick, he bore only his convictions. And so often, they were enough.
He was real. We’ve witnessed a lot of heroes fall lately. TV stars, politicians, even religious leaders have illustrated how wide the gap can be between a public persona and who a person is, deep down.
We all have inconsistencies to our characters, of course. We sin. We fail. We think or say or do things we should not. Allof us do. Even, I’m sure, Mister Rogers. But everything I’ve read about him—and what I see in Neighbor—suggests that Rogers was as true to, and as honest with, himself, and thus to his audience, as anyone can be. He didn’t just pretend to listen: He listened. He didn’t just pretend to care: He cared. Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers illustrates that really well, and it might be one of the best profiles I’ve ever read. (caution, though. It can be profane at times.)
Fred Rogers with Daniel Tiger from his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: The Fred Rogers Company
He was vulnerable (in a way). Neighbor makes the case that Mr. Rogers’ puppet alter-ego was the watch-wearing Daniel Striped Tiger—sweet, shy and deeply vulnerable. Rogers admits in the movie that it’s far easier to let Daniel express his fears than he, as a grown man, to admit to them. But he, unlike most of us, still admits to them. And through Daniel, he gave the children he spoke to permission to express their own fears and doubts.
Funny that, in our social media age where we all share so much of ourselves, rarely do we share our vulnerability. We post our smiling vacation pictures and brag about our kids and express our deep political convictions in sometimes strident, shrill terms. But I think that often it’s our vulnerabilities, not our strengths, that make people gravitate toward us and allow them to trust us. I think that that’s part of what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 12, when he told us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Rogers’ knew that, too. Our weaknesses open the door to fellowship. And that’s where strength is found.
He was devout. Rogers was an ordained minister, and throughout Neighbor we hear how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was his pulpit. He preached from his fake television house and told his young viewers that they were loved just as they were—but they still needed to learn and grow, too. And that brings us to, perhaps, Rogers’ most powerful, enduring message.
He believed in us all. That feels like a strong statement, but I don’t think it’s a stretch. Rogers believed in us all. He believed that all of us—young and old—were worthy of love. We were lovable.
Fred Rogers meets with a disabled boy in the film WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit : Jim Judkis
About Paul Asay
Paul Asay is an author, journalist and entertainment critic who now serves as a senior associate editor for the popular Christian entertainment review site Plugged In (pluggedin.com). He has been published in a variety of other secular and Christian publications, including The Washington Post, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, YouthWorker Journal and Beliefnet.com. He has a love of old movies, a disturbing affinity for bad ones and an appreciation for all things geek.