It is a small testament to his lasting brilliance that 14 years after his death, Fred Rogers captivates my daughter.
When he speaks about feelings, she listens. When he takes us to factories to witness the manufacturing of crayons or bells, her eyes follow. When he sings, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” she happily makes it a duet. As so many American children and parents have done for generations.
Pop star Justin Timberlake recently said being a parent makes “you relearn who you are. And you realize who you thought you were is not who you are. But it breaks you open to this whole different level of empathy, compassion and patience and humility.”
That’s exactly how I have felt watching reruns of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with my daughter, age 2 and a very important ½. A show I loved as a child and mocked as a teenager now leaves me with a profound sense of joy, gratitude and loss.
Joy in this man, who sometimes fumbled about on TV, and so honestly loved and valued children. Gratitude that he would live with such high purpose. And, yes, loss.
It’s hard to reconcile how a nation that entrusted Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, with our children could elect a president such as Donald J. Trump. That’s not to politicize Rogers, but as a viewer of both men this winter, the juxtaposition has been startling. In many ways, they inhabit the same geographic space during different times, and with strikingly divergent worldviews.
Rogers filmed in Pittsburgh, and Trumpism caught fire in the Rust Belt, especially rural western Pennsylvania. Rogers frequently marveled at American manufacturing, taking viewers behind the scenes to see how goods were made or visiting a family-owned business such as Wagner Quality Shoes.
Trumpism calls for the return of American manufacturing. But they split in substance and style.
Rogers’ words, spoken so slowly, unify and soothe. Trump’s words, scattered and chaotic, divide and denigrate. One welcomes neighbors, the other angrily shuts them out. One speaks with the steady grace of morality, and the other, well, we all know where he likes to grab women.
“I think one of the greatest gifts that we can give anybody is the gift of one more honest adult in that person’s life — whether (the recipient) be a child or an adult,” Rogers once told Amy Hollingsworth, author of “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.”
Fred Rogers lived with remarkable focus and discipline, waking up at 5 a.m. for prayer and reflection, swimming every morning, Hollingsworth wrote.
He rarely put outward expressions of faith in his shows — once he quoted Isaiah 2:4 to conclude a series on war and peace — but it was infused in the neighborhood.
In his book “Peaceful Neighbor,” Michael G. Long, a professor at Elizabethtown College, describes how Rogers’ spiritual center arrived in the belief, or at least wonder, that God is present in every one of us.
“Rogers dared not confine God to any particular group of people; God is within and between all of our neighbors,” Long wrote. “Perhaps, most important, later in life Rogers even dared to suggest God and neighbor are so closely aligned that they are indistinguishable.”
Despite this honest yearning for a better or lost world, arguably a world much like Rogers’ neighborhood, Trumpism is mangled because it lacks Rogers’ moral underpinnings. Trumpism lashes out at the outside world with fear and suspicion, dividing one from another. Mexicans are rapists, Trump declared. Muslims are terrorists. Trade deals only burn us. The media misinform us. The world is an angry place.
Rogers embraced the outside world in unifying words and action. Prosperity is shared, neighbors are welcome reflections of God, diversity is celebrated. Consider: Months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a time of widespread race riots and police beatings, Rogers introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer, to keep the neighborhood safe.
What would Fred Rogers do now?
Somehow we have confused anger with strength, success with money, diversity with otherness, vitriol with clarity, social media with connection.
Watching these reruns with my daughter, I have repeatedly thought we could use a Fred Rogers for this time. Many of them. Voices that break through the cacophony, with patience and grace, appealing to our higher moral selves.
Fearless voices that remind us to see the best in our neighbors.
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