Todd VanDerWerff has an extraordinary appreciation of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over at the A.V. Club, which is essential reading. There are amazing clips, too, sprinkled throughout, including Mr. Rogers’ appearance on The Tonight Show, with Joan Rivers hosting. We were a big Fred-watching household (and Sesame Street too), and Todd’s piece brought me to tears multiple times. He really gets at the unsettling and riveting (in today’s fast-paced world) peace of the show, and Mr. Rogers’ quiet and un-preachy moral authority.
Here is a small excerpt, but there is more where that came from:
Since Rogers’ death, there’s been a movement to add him to the secular canon, the very small group of people whose cultural influence was used almost entirely for good, whose lives were untouched by scandal. What’s unusual about Rogers is just how well he lives up to sainthood. He was married to the same woman his whole life. He never smoked nor drank. He was a vegetarian, and when pushed to condemn homosexuals or people of non-Christian religions, he would simply say that God loves everyone just as they are. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, is one of the best arguments there is for Christianity as a positive force in American culture, and his unobtrusive religious influence underpins everything in the series without calling attention to itself.
In a famous Esquire profile of Rogers, Tom Junod boils down what makes him special: astonishment. Somehow, through the long process of growing up, the process that beats cynicism and ironic detachment into so many of us, Rogers was capable of holding onto childlike wonder and curiosity. Returning to the series as an adult, means being confronted with who you once were and all you have lost in the process of becoming who you are. This was often the experience for adults who were lucky enough to meet Rogers, after having grown up with him on their television screens. Junod reports both on his own interactions with the man and the interactions he witnesses while following him around New York City in the course of researching the profile. And there are numerous videos where talk-show hosts struggle to hang onto what’s left of their composure in front of the whole weight of Rogers’ sincerity.
Chatting about it on Twitter, MC, from the wonderful Happy Thoughts, Darling, wrote: “I’m not even v. religious, but I truly feel he was a conduit for something holy & great. A wonderful man.”
It is a sentiment I cosign wholeheartedly. For instance, watching the following famous clip of Fred Rogers testifying before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, making the case that funding should not be cut for the brand-new PBS. The Senator in question (a tough-guy Rhode Islander, naturally) starts off cranky, and openly so. He shows that he is barely tolerating the situation. “Would it make you feel better if …” But watch what then happens. And watch what happens to Senator Pastori. Watch the transformation. You can see it occur in the Joan Rivers clip in Todd’s piece too. Watch how her energy changes. People would try to meet him with cynicism, because sincerity and earnestness makes people feel uncomfortable. (As Todd suggests, this is because we have come so far away from the children that we used to be. There is a shame factor when you encounter someone so incorruptible.)
And please, if you read anything this week, read Todd’s piece.