There’s a lot of hype right now about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the famous kids’ show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” An HBO biopic, plenty of media commentary, and now a full-length feature film starring Tom Hanks.
The celebration is full of adulation and admiration. And that’s a good thing, a really good thing.
Fred Rogers’ work and his life help us — by that I mean adults as well as children — to understand the limits and dangers of the political world.
Politics threatens to overwhelm our everyday lives. And that would be awful.
So let’s get on the trolley and take a trip to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award to Fred Rogers July 9, 2002, during ceremonies in the East Room.
George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Big Land And Little Land
Imagine the night before a Democratic presidential debate Elizabeth Warren saying, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.'”
That would seem odd, dumb, maybe even a little crazy and derelict. What politician is going to get anywhere by promising to think small? Get off the stage!
Politics is big, loud, boisterous, sweeping, and ka-boom confident: “Medicare for all!” “Build the Wall!” If you are nuanced, you’re a flip flopper.
But thinking little was definitely what Rogers wanted to teach us. In fact the quote I attribute to Senator Warren, Rogers actually said that.
He did so in 1997, responding to a Kentucky school shooting that had killed three high school students and injured several others.
The night before the shooting the killer had promised his friend that the next day he was going to “do something big.”
Rogers said, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.’”
Mister Rogers followed up with a week’s worth of shows, “Big and Little,” about the value and potential of little ideas, giving children confidence about thinking quietly and tentatively about small things. It’s OK to think small.
We need to fight just as hard to protect the quiet, tiny things in our own lives. Protecting the small from the big, the tentative from the falsely confident.
The Land Of Make Believe
Storytelling is at the center of political speech. So no surprise that effective politicians are storytellers who use stories to show how authentic they are.
It’s a particular sort of authenticity. Research shows that “authenticity is not about being honest. It’s about seeming unscripted.”
Effective politicians learn to sound extemporaneous because our brains are wired to expect this kind of speech and to ignore or dismiss other ways of talking.
Barack Obama was good at this. So is Pete Buttigieg. As one analyst put it, Donald Trump is such an effective liar because with his off-the-cuff style he lies authentically.
This sort of political authenticity is learned, a skill set. It’s a tool in a tool kit based on the assumption that the public self is different from the private self.
Politically that works, but that does not mean we want this kind of flexible, stretchable authenticity in our private lives.
Over the years people who have written about Rogers or worked for him have asked themselves, “Is he for real? What’s Fred Rogers like outside his neighborhood of make believe?”
Those questions never made sense to Rogers because, as one writer put it, there was no difference between the Rogers on screen and the Rogers off. All the same authenticity all the time.
Almost none of us can be as singularly authentic as Rogers. But his unaffected authenticity resonates, doesn’t it? It reverberates with our aspirations about how to live.
So it’s a worthy guide to our private lives even if most of us can’t get there 100%. That makes it a fragile but important barrier between the authenticity we seek in our private lives and the contrived authenticity of politics.
I’m not saying that politicians should behave more like Mister Rogers. That’s unfair and unrealistic. Politics has its own norms.
We certainly should not withdraw from political involvement because it’s not a part of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. Politics is vital. We need more political involvement — but also more separation.
It’s OK to think small.
You want to change those norms and make politics more civil, or more honest, fine. But that’s not what I am after here.
What I want is for you to understand that with its passion, power and visibility, politics threatens to subsume — to politicize — our everyday lives.
Instead of ending with some grandiose set of recommendations — thinking big! — I just have one, tentative suggestion:
Rogers hated to teach explicit lessons. He wanted children to absorb by watching. So he was big on demonstrating stuff.
In that spirit, go to YouTube and watch an old episode or two of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Then watch or listen to any politician.
Then don’t be afraid to think quietly and tentatively about what you saw.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.