World could use more of Mr. Rogers’ childlike innocence

Marty Rochester

By Marty Rochester

During the summer break, my wife and I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a documentary about the life of Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. It was a break also from the constant yelling and screaming we hear around us today, not only in our individual neighborhoods but in the entire society.

Fred Rogers had a three-decades-plus run (1968 to 2001) as creator and host of the PBS children’s show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Over the course of almost 1,000 episodes, he would appear daily wearing sneakers, a cardigan sweater and a smile, engaging in kidspeak with his little friends in the studio and national television audience while parents listened in. 

He invited ridicule because of his childlike, often goofy persona, coming off to many (at least the adults) as a sappy television personality who seemed forever happy, no matter what was happening in the world around him.  

However, the documentary sets the record straight. Rogers was a truly extraordinary human being, who had profound insights into child development and possessed a worldview we could all benefit from today.

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He had a fascinating life. He was a high school classmate of golfer Arnold Palmer at Latrobe High School outside Pittsburgh. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He excelled at the arts, from puppetry to music composition. His testimony before a U.S. Senate  committee proved instrumental in securing government funding for children’s public television. 

And he was a lifelong Republican who was mainly attacked from the right, not only because of his pioneering views on race and gay rights but also because his insistence that each child was special and needed to be showered with love led some to blame him unfairly for the excessive self-esteem movement, the entitlement culture, grade inflation in schools, demands for safe spaces and even the emergence of so-called helicopter parents.

His basic message of “love thyself and thy neighbor,” especially as applied to kids, seems irrefutable, even if some folks carried it too far and perverted it while others ignored it altogether 

Where “SesameStreet” could be frenetic, edgy and satirical, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was always calm and warm and fuzzy. No matter. There was a deeply thought-out philosophy behind everything, from the wardrobe to the set decorations to the puppet creations and dialogue, a philosophy that sought to improve every child and, in the process, the world. 

In the movie, Rogers even references tikkun olam as his goal. 

Here is where it gets tricky. It is one thing to offer unconditional love to children. We can debate how to balance strict parenting with Dr. Spock’s more permissive parenting-lite, but surely kids deserve lots of TLC. 

It is something else to offer unconditional love to adults, say to  Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Harvey Weinstein or — as some of the most vocal tikkun olam champions might add — Donald Trump. 

As I watched the movie, part of me still had some reservations about how Rogers’ philosophy applied to the real world outside his “neighborhood.” 

In contrast to the trolley that reliably ran every day along the tracks in his studio, we have the University City trolley to nowhere. 

In contrast to the kindly Officer Clemmons character on his show, we have police castigated by local media outlets and social justice groups for systemic racism in Ferguson, Clayton, and elsewhere. 

And so it goes — the disconnect between Mr. Rogers’ make-believe world and the world most of us inhabit, with all of its imperfections. 

In Mr. Rogers’ world, there were only good people or, at worst, bad people who could be persuaded to be good in a matter of 30  minutes, given the right sermon. I was reminded of how, on the eve of World War II, U.S. Sen. William Borah, R-Idaho, naively lamented, “If I could only have talked to Hitler,” as if mere words of love, friendship, peace and justice would unfailingly work to produce tikkun olam

Yet, by the end of the movie, after witnessing the incredible humanity that he demonstrated during his life, I had to confess that Rogers deserved my respect, even awe. I was hardly alone. I am guessing there was a mix of liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders in the audience. As we all exited the theater, there was not a dry eye in the house. 

These days, it is rare for one person to be able to touch souls across the entire political spectrum. Fred Rogers had that special quality. In the childlike innocence he projected, he seemed to know something we cannot fully grasp.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”