The attention given to the late Mr. Rogers very much reflects the state of American culture and perhaps, more broadly, the state of the world. First, came Morgan Neville’s hit documentary about Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This was followed by the very successful movie directed by Marielle Heller starring Tom Hanks, as Mr. Rogers, in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” It is a credit to both works that neither featured the violence and sex so often glamorized in today’s cinematic productions.
The enthusiasm for these two biopics hearkens back to 1968 when Simon and Garfunkel recorded the song, Mrs. Robinson, with the lyrics:
“Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes on you.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away.”
When those words were written, America was still fighting a futile war– but being told differently–in Viet Nam. And, furthermore, a third-rate power like Viet Nam was in the process of conducting the Tet Offensive that was one of the largest and most successful campaigns against South Vietnam and the U.S.A. Joe Dimaggio represented an American hero long gone as Viet Nam turned into a nation’s disgrace.
Today the kindness of Fred Rogers is almost revered because there is such a dearth of that very same human quality. If a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent change, then I would say Donald Trump is a human catalyst. Although he did not create it, President Trump has taken social media to its ultimate in “twittering” nastiness to all of his detractors. His enemies of which there are many have returned the favor of Mr. Trump with their own version of nastiness. The news media shrieking both loudly and mockingly from side to side with little hope for resolution catapults us into chaotic oblivion. We are now facing the moral bankruptcy so many of us felt in the ‘60’s. We view Mr. Rogers, though if he were alive, he would surely deny it, a hero amidst cowards that are afraid to step down from their pedestals and make peace with those of whom we disagree. This has resulted in a lack of civility felt by all. Such a lapse in good manners can erode the values for which this country believed in when it first came to be.
There is a deep need for the kindness and decency embodied by Fred Rogers. We want to believe, as Fred Rogers told us we could, that he was no more special than you and I and, that we all have the moral capacity to behave in a way that would better serve both our neighbors and ourselves. People applauded these two movies about Mr. Rogers because he possessed that generosity of spirit that is so lacking in today’s society. Mr. Rogers touched a vital chord that we so painfully miss today.