If I asked any ten random people to describe what a revolutionary looks like, some people would probably say Lenin. Others would say Marx, Fidel Castro, Mao, Robespierre or George Washington. One or two might even say Jesus. I’m confident nobody would say “Fred McFeely Rogers,” the long running host of the eponymous PBS children’s how Mr. Rogers neighborhood, but in some ways that’s exactly what he was. Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor brings out the radical side of a man who dedicated his life to militant love and compassion towards children.
It’s no accident that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Minister, or that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the most traumatizing and yet transformative year of the 1960s. Any of the young men or women who “got clean for Gene,” put on a suit and tie to campaign for the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire would have gotten the joke. From the earnest young “haute urban bourgeoisie” in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan to cranky old Bernie Sanders, perhaps the most admired politician of the millennial generation, there’s always been a style of personal and artistic expression that so consciously eschews any subversive pose that it become radical. In the words of Huey Lewis, “it’s hip to be square.”
Fred Rogers, who was 40 years old in 1968, got his start in television in the 1950s on a local Pittsburgh show called The Children’s Corner, where the often-low quality and easily damaged film stock had forced him and cohost Josie Carey to improvise live shows with what would eventually become his trademark puppets. Rogers, who had attended Dartmouth College, but finished up his undergraduate education studying music at Rollins College in Georgia, had considered either music or the pulpit as a career, but was drawn into the world of public television after noticing the slapstick vulgarity and spiritual emptiness of the popular children’s shows of the day and deciding that he could do better.
The result was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, a low budget show with a pacing so slow it might have seemed ridiculous to adults, but which targeted its intended audience perfectly. Children, who have far more powerful, and vulnerable, imaginations than adults, don’t need quick cuts, special effects, or convoluted plots. All they really need is a safe space to be themselves. Fred Rogers, who was bullied as a child when he briefly ballooned in weight shortly before adolescence, realized how easy is was to destroy the magic of childhood, to obscure what Wordsworth once described as “a time when meadow, grove, and stream, the earth, and every common sight seem apparelled in celestial light.” Through the decades, beginning in 1968 when he had cast member “Lady Abelin” gently break the news about the assassination of Robert Kennedy through the 1970s, where he and the African American cast member François Clemmons bathed their feet together in a small wading pool as a conscious rebuke to the segregationist backlash of the 1970s, Rogers taught parents how to protect their children’s souls from the dehumanizing effects of the daily news.
When it came to politics, Fred McFeely Rogers got just about everything right. I was almost as surprised to learn that he was a registered Republican as I was that he was over six feet tall. His one big failing was his refusal to support Clemmons in his decision to live his life as a gay man. Although Clemmons, who is a major character in the documentary, clearly forgives Rogers and remembers him fondly, it’s hard not to be appalled at Rogers’ advice that he should get married to a woman in order to cover up an inconvenient fact that might lose the show its sponsors. Rogers could accept Clemons as a black man. He could not accept him as a gay man.
It’s also difficult not to conclude that Fred McFeely Rogers failed. We now live in a world, not only of vulgar and bloated children’s entertainment — Rogers, who despised superhero movies would have hated the current media landscape — but one of radical evil. Our President Donald Trump, surely the negation of a man like Mr. Rogers, puts immigrant children in cages. The massacre of over 20 grade school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, was met not only with indifference, but with outright denial by fascist media personalities like Alex Jones, who actively mounted a campaign of harassment against the families of the survivors.
Nevertheless, I came out of Would You Be My Neighbor emotionally engaged in a way that I no longer thought was possible. While I never watched the show as a child, I was brought back in touch with my inner child, at least enough to get angry at the way it was destroyed before I had the intellectual ability or emotional awareness to try to protect it. I realized that Fred McFeely Rogers’ soft-spoken call to arms was as powerful in its own way as The Communist Manifesto or the Declaration of Independence, that he consciously evoked the revolutionary power of the early Christians. Indeed, Rogers, who kept his weight at exactly 143 pounds for his entire life — 1 for “I.” 4 for “Love.” And 3 for “You.” — had found a way to preach about St. Paul’s great Letter to the Corinthians through TV, and in a way so subtle that few of us ever noticed. “Faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”