I’ve been spending a lot of time with Fred Rogers lately. Mr. Rogers passed away in 2003, but he lives on in an endless series of television repeats on PBS stations across America. In life, he was celebrated as a secular saint and a national treasure. But now that he’s gone it’s clear he was more than that.
For all of his sweetness, Mr. Rogers was a countercultural figure. His show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, presented a liberal view of the world that often verged on self-parody. One episode I saw recently featured a nonsexist orange construction sign proclaiming “People at Work.” In another, Mr. Rogers made little bags of homemade granola (“for some of my friends,” he explained) before heading off to tour a tofu factory.
That makes sense, of course. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began filming in 1968. The drug culture was unfurling; homeless teenagers were taking over San Francisco; student protesters were rioting. Hijackings and assassinations had become routine. America’s center was failing to hold.
But the hippie aesthetic of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was more Society of Friends than SDS. In one episode Mr. Rogers visited Adelia Moore-Gerety, a pretty young woman who sported an ostentatiously hyphenated last name and a fashionable peasant blouse. But Adelia was a homemaker who showed Mr. Rogers how she sewed quilts and stuffed animals for her children.
Part of Mr. Rogers’ mission seems to have been to honor people who work with their hands. In nearly every episode he toured some workplace—a metal-working plant, a factory making rain slickers, a mushroom farm, a paper mill. He approached the workers as though they were artisans, performing interesting and valuable work. Which, of course, they were.
I suspect that few of those jobs still exist in the American heartland. And to the extent they do persist, they’re eyed with some discomfiture by middle-class society. We think everyone should go to college now, and then get a proper office job.
In a way, Mr. Rogers’ mode of liberalism is more countercultural today than it was in the ’70s. When it came to politics, Mr. Rogers kept his cards fairly close to his chest. I’d make book that he was in favor of the United Nations and the Nuclear Freeze movement and Jimmy Carter and all of the other horribles of the left. But when it came to culture, Fred Rogers was deeply conservative.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was conventionally religious, not spiritual. He believed in the importance of form and tradition. And silence. In one episode, Mr. Rogers sat on his couch, addressed the camera, and said, “Sometimes I like to have quiet time, to just sit and think. Do you ever like to sit quietly and think?” He then sat in silence for a full 45 seconds. No one, before or since, has so blasphemed against television. It was glorious to behold.
In another episode, Mr. Rogers played a home video of a family holding a 100th birthday party for an antique doll. The clan was gathered around a table—children, parents, and a grandmother. The frail elderly lady cheerfully though haltingly recounted playing with the doll when she was a girl. The children at the table listened attentively, without either sentimentality or condescension—just genuine interest. Mr. Rogers did, too.
No children’s program today would dare feature a geriatric with such honesty. To do so would hint at all sorts of unmentionable ideas about mortality and the human condition. Even worse, it might suggest that children were the base, rather than the apex, of the family order.
It’s this last bit that’s most remarkable about Mr. Rogers. Watch children’s television today and the grown-ups are bumbling fools, while the kids are sly, ironic, and knowing. It’s the kids’ world, these shows say, the adults just live in it.
Mr. Rogers loved children—loved them as St. Francis did the birds. But he did not believe that children were the moral center of the universe. At the precise moment when America began committing idolatry with its youth, Mr. Rogers stood to suggest that adults could be kind to children while still acting like adults. Which is to say that grown-ups know best and should civilize the dear little savages, with love and understanding in their hearts.
Fred Rogers shot 895 episodes of his show over the course of 30 years. Eighteen months after retiring, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died three months later. Happily, he remains very much with us.