Washington is on a break from all the partisanship and vindictiveness that passes for normalcy these days.
The city is in the midst of a holiday lull. Members of Congress are back home celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends… President Trump is ensconced at his Florida resort for a few days of golf and feasting.
Now, more than ever, we need a respite – some time to focus on the things that really matter and to realize that we are, indeed, one country with much to be grateful for.
We need a reminder of the power of empathy, of forgiveness, and of simple kindness.
We need Fred Rogers.
To generations of Americans, he will always be known as “Mister Rogers” — the soft-spoken, mild-mannered host of a television series for pre-schoolers. He spoke to them… he listened to them… he understood their fears… and he preached love and acceptance.
We were little when he entered our lives. And in these tumultuous times, we are well served to remember his message — the one he shared with countless millions of kids and their parents.
Today, as if on cue, he is back in front of our eyes to remind us.
This Thanksgiving, lines are forming to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — a movie that tells of the friendship between Fred Rogers and a troubled journalist who was assigned to write a profile of the TV icon for a popular magazine.
Rogers sees the child in the writer and reaches out to him, thawing his cynical exterior. This was his real power… this was his gift — the ability to see a scared, lonely or questioning little boy or girl in all of us.
For more than three decades — from 1968 to 2001 — he was the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The production values were simple. He began each episode in a set that looked like a cozy, living room, entering through the front door and singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” as he hung up his jacket and put on a zip-up cardigan sweater — almost always brightly colored and handmade. What followed was a magic trolley ride (no special effects, just a model trolley) to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” where a cast of hand puppets would interact with adults and each other.
Every show had a theme… a subtle message delivered in Roger’s soothing manner.
Most dealt with the usual trials and tribulations of childhood — things like how to share and how to deal with anger.
But sometimes, Mister Rogers took on bigger issues. During the time of the civil rights movement in the United States, when swimming pools in some parts of the country were still segregated, Rogers made headlines with an episode in which he asked the African-American policeman in his TV “neighborhood” to sit by him on the rim of a plastic pool so they could soak their feet together on a hot day.
The message was subtle… but unmistakeable.
There were other times when he had to respond to the news, to offer guidance to children and — in a way — to all of us.
During the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990’s, he told his young audience “all children shall be well taken care of in this neighborhood and beyond — in times of war and in times of peace,” and he asked parents to promise their children they would always be safe.
By the end of the decade, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was nearing the completion of its long run on the non-profit public broadcasting network. The old puppets were looking a bit worn, and some would say that in the evolving digital age, the simplicity of the neighborhood was looking a little, well, dated.
But still, we looked to Mister Rogers. At a time of terrorist attacks and school shootings — such as the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999 — he offered a voice of calm and reassurance.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” was his advice.
In all, he hosted 895 episodes, wrote 200 songs for the show, and was the puppeteer who created 14 characters. More importantly, he changed the face of children’s television in the United States, and in so doing, had an impact on a generation of little kids who grew up to have offspring of their own.
There were numerous awards — including the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, which he received from President George W. Bush in 2002. Of all the honors, Rogers – a Presbyterian minister by training — once said: I’d like to be remembered for being a compassionate human being who happened to be fortunate enough to be born at a time when there was a fabulous thing called television that could allow me to use all the talents that I had been given.”
He worked almost until his death from stomach cancer in 2003.
And as we think of him now, 16 years later after his passing, we wonder what would he think of the world of today?
He once said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
And how would he respond to the coarseness and division that has grown in parts of our country? Another quote comes to mind: “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”
I find many of us are yearning for the simplicity of Mister Rogers and his neighborhood — the gentleness, the concern for each and every child and the adult he or she will one day become.
Tom Junod, the magazine writer whose story inspired the new movie about Fred Rogers recently wrote an essay to mark the release of the film. “What would Mister Rogers have made of our time?” he asks.
He acknowledges nobody knows for sure then adds: “that he stands at the height of his reputation 16 years after his death shows the persistence of a certain kind of human hunger—the hunger for goodness.”