Have you seen A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the quasi-documentary about the life of Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? My children watched the show when they were young, as did tens of millions of other children during its run from 1968 until 2001. Anyway, having now seen the movie I can understand why it was so popular with young children.
I won’t reprise the film or Rogers’s life. (He died of stomach cancer in 2003, three weeks before his 75th birthday.) Just follow the links in the preceding paragraph if you are curious and know almost nothing about the man or the show. I had glimpsed the show in passing, but never watched it. It was literally “kid stuff” as far as I was concerned.
Having now seen the film, and read a bit about Rogers’s life, I applaud him and what he strove to do for children. What was that? It seems to me that it was to help them cope with the kinds of fears and worries that seem to trouble most children: the fear of dying, the fear of scary things, the fear of having one’s parents divorce, the feeling of being somehow responsible if they do divorce, and on and on.
Rogers’s efforts in that direction were laudable and probably helpful. He certainly wasn’t to be condemned for what some accused him of, which was to inculcate in a generation of children the sense that they were worthy of esteem no matter what they did. I don’t know what motivated such accusations. Perhaps it was part of the backlash against Dr. Spock’s “permissiveness”, with which Rogers could be associated. Perhaps it was Rogers’s rather prissy (public) demeanor, which some mistook for homosexuality. Perhaps it was his evident affection for persons as persons, regardless of their race or sexual orientation. Whatever it was — and it was probably those things and more — it was all misplaced aggression against a man who, in an earlier age, might have been proclaimed a saint.
Thus the belated film tribute, which IMDb summarizes thus:
Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America’s most beloved neighbor.
Tom Hanks may not be Mr. Clean, but he has that image. Top it off by casting him as the personification of “empathy, kindness, and decency” — who was also a Republican and an ordained minister — and what to you have? The anti-Trump, of course. Or the anti-Trump as Trump is widely perceived, which is what matters.
The only mistake made by the Hollywood types who wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the film (almost certainly anti-Trumpers to the last he, she, and it) was to release the movie almost a year before the presidential election of 2020. Unless the Democrat Party puts up a scold like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, a mid-2020 release would have underscored the contrast between Trump and the Democrat nominee. If Pete Buttigieg — the Mr. Nice Guy among the wannabe nominees — were to get the nod, the contrast would have been stark. (The mistaken perception of Rogers as homosexual wouldn’t have hurt, either.)
I am by no means being snide about Fred Rogers, who seems to have deserved all of the respect and adulation that came to him in his lifetime, and all that has followed him into death. But the aura of goodness that surrounds the memory of Rogers contrasts starkly with the bad things that are thought and said about Donald Trump because of his persona and rhetoric. (His persona and rhetoric detract, unfortunately, from the good things that he has done and is doing as president.)
Luckily, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will be largely forgotten before votes are cast in next year’s presidential election. But it is still possible that the vast, squishy center of the electorate — people who would rather vote for “nice” than for their own interests — may reject Trump (and the GOP generally) and enable America’s version of the Thousand-Year Reich.