Do you remember “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”? I certainly do. It was my go-to and much appreciated moment of calm when my son was small. And I was as much of a fan as he was.
The PBS show celebrated the 50th anniversary of its national broadcast debut with a special, “It’s You I Like,” which aired this week. During its time, the show, less kinetic than “Sesame Street,” which had its own unique charm, wit and silliness, was sometimes mocked for its simplicity and for the decidedly “un-cool” characteristics of the man at the center.
But watching the special and feeling that calm once again reminded me how much his virtues never grow old, and how very much Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, is the role model we need right now in our lives and politics. You have only to look at the headlines — from chaos to wild tweets to payoffs to adult film stars to notice how far we have wandered from the rules according to Fred.
This week has seen the promise of a trade war that had some of Donald Trump’s most ardent congressional GOP allies — from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch — breaking with his hastily reached policy decision, and the administration’s top economic adviser Gary Cohn, a Wall Street favorite, heading for the exit. (It is interesting that tariffs, not the president’s reaction to white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the breaking point.)
There goes the neighborhood
When Trump says he likes “conflict,” he isn’t kidding. More than 40 percent of his top-level staffers have left, an area where he is outpacing competitors, especially after decisions that often seem reckless and off the cuff — not exactly the qualities to reassure a country that has come to both expect and dread breaking news of the day.
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Thoughtfulness and reflection, on the other hand, were “Mister Rogers” trademarks; in a speeded-up world, Rogers was not afraid to slow down, especially in the face of tackling tough topics that children and adults face, from divorce to the death of a loved one. As far as his own staff was concerned, not much turnover there; many grew old along with him.
In perhaps the most moving flashback in the show, from 1981, Rogers spoke with and sang along with 10-year-old Jeffrey Erlanger, who explained the tumor, treatment and wheelchair that affected his life but definitely did not define him. Moviemaker Judd Apatow, making an appearance in the present-day special, remembered the effect that segment had on him, how it made him realize that this boy and others who might at first seem different, were really like him in ways that mattered.
Too often now, the instinct is to drive a wedge into any difference, inflaming it, rather than searching for common ground. A perceived weakness is a chance to name-call and isolate.
Do the actions of leaders filter down to the citizenry? When it works.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump belittled his primary opponents and eventual general election foe with degrading nicknames turned into call-and-response exchanges with rally audiences out for blood — and occasionally drawing it in attacks on protesters. He won.
For too many leaders, difference is the dividing line — between rich and poor, between races, religions and those with political leanings that diverge from their own. (Hatch, who has already lived longer on this earth than Rogers, has not yet learned this lesson, as he recently apologized for calling supporters of the Affordable Care Act “the stupidest, dumbass people” he had ever met.)
Rogers lifted up the vulnerable — even the most powerful have at least a fleeting familiarity with that feeling — and looked none the weaker for doing so.
Music was a large part of Rogers’ soothing message, in the songs he composed and presented. On his show, he featured a younger Wynton Marsalis, which reflected the host’s own love of jazz, and music from talented musicians, including talented children, from all genres. On the special, Grammy-winning composer, vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding recalled how that inspired her career, a reminder that art has value and any talent needs nurturing to blossom.
Though Trump recently nominated a new chair for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the agency and the National Endowment for the Arts have been favored targets in the past for elimination by Trump and conservative lawmakers, something that Rogers may have had an opinion about. In 1969, he testified before a U.S. Senate committee urging support for national public television.
Rogers was quite clear to make the distinction between real life and his neighborhood of make-believe. He did not talk down to his audience, letting all see the truth behind the curtain, whether it was the people who made puppets come alive or the costumes, makeup and acting skills that transformed grandmotherly Margaret Hamilton into the scariest character in “The Wizard of Oz,” taking away the fear in the process.
In Washington, ramping up the fear — of everyone from neighbors to global allies — is a governing principle that is more exhausting than reassuring.
No ‘alternative facts’
“He never lied to kids,” comedian Sarah Silverman noted, getting uncharacteristically emotional in her recollection. Today, pitched partisan battles inevitably descend into arguments over “fake news” and “alternative facts.” A search for truth? That train entered the land of make-believe a long time ago.
There is hope, though, that the un-cool guy is getting another look. It is the time of “Mister Rogers,” with a documentary, a film and a stamp to honor him all coming soon. Sometimes simple is best, and meeting people where they are proves to be far more difficult yet more effective than a pitched battle.
If Beltway leaders wish to revisit the qualities “Mister Rogers” championed, a start would be the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which has snagged one of his signature cardigans.
For all but a few, I’m afraid, it might be a tough fit.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.