A resurgence of interest in “Mister Rogers” is sweeping across America. Two major films celebrate him: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is open across the country right now. Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers in “You Are My Friend”, due next year. Max King’s eagerly awaited official biography of Fred will be published this fall. The USPS has issued a commemorative stamp of Fred (with King Friday XIII). Michael Keaton is hosting a PBS special celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. And as a former president of the “Mister Rogers” company and co-writer, I’m fielding a surge in invitations to explain how and why Fred became an iconic model of friendship and citizenship for generations of children.
But Fred died fifteen years ago, and PBS stopped broadcasting his program more than ten years ago. What’s going on here, anyway?
I think this renewed regard for Fred Rogers and “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” has a lot to do with how seriously parents want models of decency and generosity for their children—and for all the rest of us, too, as we fulfill our lives in community. What so many families see modeled in Donald Trump is precisely the opposite. Our public communal life has turned toxic, and we yearn for an antidote.
One man begs for approval; the other bestowed it. Donald Trump regarded Democrats’ failure to applaud his every word in the State of the Union as “treasonous”. But time and again, I watched Fred pull a judo move on compliments by responding, “Oh, thank you for saying that.” See what just happened? Fred flipped the moment into something praiseworthy the other person had done. He lived to enhance others’ lives.
By contrast, Donald Trump’s presidency features his team’s sacrificing their integrity on his behalf. Aping Trump’s own sociopathy, they stand before the public and tell brazen lies, leaving a majority of Americans appalled at their self-debasement. How do they ever awaken fresh each morning only to sally forth once again to humiliate themselves—and their cringing families? I ache for their loss.
In my years of observing Fred engage others I never, ever saw another person come away changed in any way but for the better. Fred sought, sensed, and affirmed each person’s best self, and he left them feeling prouder of themselves, feeling more kindly toward others, feeling likeable just the way they are.
There were some parents who worried that “I like you just the way you are” might make their child lazy and self-satisfied. But of course, the effect is just the opposite: it inspires each child to become more and more of who they truly are, instead of perpetually shape-shifting into some crowd-pleasing alternative self designed to produce applause and acceptance. Sadly, Donald Trump seems not ever to have heard any such affirmation. We see in his life of crippling narcissism a quest in which neither his self-praise nor praise conjured from others relieves his suffering for long.
But the most dramatic difference between Fred Rogers and Donald Trump is seen in the source of their power. Donald Trump’s power results from the use of blunt instruments: groping star-struck women, refusing to pay suppliers, exploiting subcontractors, abandoning investors via bankruptcy, “firing” aspirants in a so-called reality TV show, bullying those who are weaker, trampling cherished customs, and careering recklessly as President and Commander-in-Chief.
Fred’s power came from just the opposite. People ask me if the Fred on TV is the same in real life. Yes, but what you don’t see is that the mild-mannered guy on the program is the most powerful person I’ve ever known in a lifetime of engagement with many the world considers powerful. Mister Rogers the powerhouse? Yes. See, we all spend some percentage of our brainpower constantly wondering how we’re coming across to others. On a good day, it’s in single digits; on a bad day, a lot more. But it’s never zero. Except for Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers never wondered what anybody thought about him. This man with a TV audience of millions had no “sense of audience” whatsoever in real life. He was immune to others’ expectations. There is a word to describe this: self-possession. So others were powerless to possess him in any way. Couldn’t manipulate him, flatter him, seduce him, exploit him, bait him, patronize him. Fred Rogers was always his own person steadfastly on his own mission—nurturing others’ growth. And so he was free to devote 100% of his attention to those around him and make their lives the only thing to pay attention to in that instant, the only thing he wanted to enhance.
America does well to celebrate this exemplar of decency and generosity and self-possession, reminding ourselves of the better angels of our nature. And American children need his nurturing presence in their lives now like never before. Perhaps PBS will restore “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to its place in American homes every weekday as one step in reversing the toxicity of these times. We need Fred Rogers to show us how to be good neighbors once again.