A week after the US election that supposedly further polarized America came the news that one of the biggest box office draws in American movie theaters at the moment isn’t the latest action hero extravaganza or horror movie.
Nope, the crowds are lining up on the street to see a little documentary about a taciturn Presbyterian minister, who spent 30 years speaking directly to the nation’s children by broadcasting Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood from a low-budget studio in Pittsburgh on public TV.
I was a young teenager when the show transplanted from Canadian television to the US in 1968, but a constant viewer many years later was our eldest daughter Caitlin, who, aged 7 or so, insisted on catching the show during our regular visits to New York.
Caitlin would sit mesmerized, from the opening moments, as this gentle, mild-mannered man with his slicked back hair walked through a cardboard neighborhood, entered one house, singing, ‘It’s a beautiful day for a neighbor, won’t you be mine?’ as he proceeded to hang up his coat, slip off his shoes, put on his zip-up cardigan, tie up his sneakers and look directly into the camera, as though he were about to start a conversation solely with her.
And in a way he was. Fred Rogers, who grew up sickly and overweight, had been bullied and bed-ridden for much of his youth. That early experience no doubt formed what were at the time revolutionary ideas about the inner life and needs of children – indeed, of all of us.
Rogers was essentially the show’s entire act. He wrote and narrated it, often acting things out with puppets, and even wrote songs. His underlying message to children was simple: ‘There’s nobody in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.’
The show wasn’t saccharine. Rogers wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult themes, like competition, divorce, death and even segregation. During the early days of his show, when swimming pools were still segregated, Rogers invited the African-American actor Francois Clemmons, who played his on-screen neighborhood cop, to share a footbath with him.
What’s even more remarkable was that Rogers wasn’t too good to be true. At a time when national heroes are dethroned, one after the other, with revelations of sexual or financial scandals, no skeletons about him ever emerged. As his son once remarked, ‘It was a little tough for me to have the second Christ as my dad.’
In 1969, when appealing to a cynical congressional committee not to cut in half (to $10 million) the current national funding for public television, and reapportion the money to the Vietnam war, Fred Rogers had his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, when he laid out his own theories about why his show was so necessary – more necessary, say, than the latest cartoons.
“We don’t need to bop somebody over the head to create drama,” he explained in quiet, measured tones to John Pastore, the skeptical senator from Rhode Island who chaired the Congressional Committee on Communications. “We deal with the inner drama of children.”
Connecting through love
Rogers’ entire theme was love – or its lack. ‘Love is at the root of everything,’ he said. Fifty years before this generation of British Royals were talking about mental health, he was encouraging children about why it was healthy to express their feelings.
“Feelings are mentionable and manageable,” he said to Pastore. “It’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger, much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”
A song of his, which he shared in its entirety with the congressional committee, started out, ‘What do you do with the mad you feel?’ and ended, ‘And know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can.’
Clearly that message spoke to Pastore, who said, after listening to Roger’s six-minute testimony, looked like he was about to cry.
‘I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy but this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days.’ He told Rogers. ‘Looks like you just earned the $20 million.’
At a time when it wasn’t cool to be a nerd in a cardigan, Fred Rogers was endlessly lampooned by the likes of Saturday Night Live, but something about him continues to speak to all of us – whether Democrats or Republicans, Brexiteers or Remainers.
What he preached, day after day, on his daily show was that we can love each other, even if we are different. And if we’re mad at each other, we can work it out.
Mostly, though, by inviting everyone into his neighborhood, Rogers was saying that there's a place for all of us here.
Clearly, based on the crowds lining up to see the movie, that’s a message that deeply resonates inside all of us, no matter which way we voted.
During this Thanksgiving weekend, let’s give thanks for the deep, enduring values that unite all of us. Maybe we’re not so different after all.