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Monday, October 24, 2022

October 24, 2022: PBS People: Fred Rogers

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why niceness isn’t limiting, but why it’s also not everything.

I greatly enjoyed the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)—not surprisingly, as two of its main stars are two of my very favorite actors of all time, Matthew Rhys and Chris Cooper—and was particularly interested in two of its interconnected main points: that Fred Rogers (a typically wonderful Tom Hanks) is indeed as fundamentally and genuinely nice as he seems, and that that niceness is more or less a superpower. Rhys’ cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (based loosely on Tom Junod, from whose 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero?” the film was adapted) is constantly looking for a meanness or darkness beneath Rogers’ niceness, and the film’s ultimate argument is two-fold: that Rogers is in reality precisely as nice as he seems on his multi-decade, meta-hit PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, if not somehow even nicer still; and that his niceness is able to powerfully and vitally affect even a deeply troubled and disenchanted person like Lloyd. That might sound profoundly treacly, but while the film occasionally ventures into that territory, I think the tremendous talents of its performers (and its director Marielle Heller) keep it on the right side of that equation.

Interestingly enough, one of the most famous moments from Rogers’ TV show likewise reflects the genuine and striking power of niceness, on multiple levels. In the episode which aired May 2nd, 1969, Rogers asked his friend, the Black policeman Officer Clemmons (played by François Clemmons), if he wanted to dip his feet in a wading pool on a hot day; when Clemmons did so, his bare feet next to Rogers’ in the small pool, this simple, kind gesture became an overt statement against the moment’s continued racial segregation (which included swimming pools in a central and symbolic way). It was, as Clemmons later reflected, Rogers’ “way of speaking about race relations in America.” But Rogers himself apparently also had to learn from that ideal of welcoming kindness, as he was initially somewhat less supportive of Clemmons’ identity as a gay man—but when they recreated the scene in Clemmons’ final appearance in 1993, Rogers extended the kindness yet further, allowing Clemmons to sing “Many Ways to Say I Love You” and then drying Clemmons’ feet with his towel.

So niceness can open a lot of doors, in our own hearts as well as in society. But it isn’t always enough, nor necessarily the right response to a particular problem, a reality that Fred Rogers likewise reflected in one of his most famous public moments. In 1990, Rogers and his team discovered that a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was imitating his voice in phone messages seeking to convert young people to their racist and hateful messages, and he immediately took action, successfully suing to stop the Klan from appropriating him in this way. Of course it stands to reason that Rogers would oppose the Klan, but my point here is that he didn’t try to kill them with kindness, nor (for example) just to make an appeal on air for his audiences (young and old alike) to resist such hate. No, Rogers swiftly and, I would say at least, aggressively used the power of the law and of his (by this time) extremely well-connected organization to stop this hate group. I’ve thought a lot about the limits of inclusion over the last few years, and I believe Rogers would agree with me that, when it comes to domestic terrorists like the KKK, we quite simply don’t want them to be our neighbors.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

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