Although it is opening nationwide this weekend, it’s already clear that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is the feel-good film of the year.
When I saw it, the last thing that surprised me, other than my tears, was the audience’s applause as the credits rolled. We were so relieved, so happy, to learn that Fred Rogers was the real deal, and that he really liked us just as we are.
But one thing nagged at me: the claim that Rogers was a Republican. When the documentary shared that tidbit, I wanted to stand up in the theater and shout, “Yes, but he was a really bad Republican!”
If being a good Republican means falling in line behind the party’s leader, as today’s party members are doing with President Trump, Rogers was barely a Republican at all.
Consider his dissent from the policies of several Republican presidents.
By the time President Nixon was prolonging the Vietnam War, Rogers had already used “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to spread his pacifist belief that “war isn’t nice.”
Before Nixon opposed busing for the purpose of desegregation, Rogers had welcomed into his neighborhood home an African-American teacher, Mrs. Saunders, and her interracial group of young students. “Come on in!” he said as they arrived at the front door.
Not long after Nixon nominated antifeminist G. Harrold Carswell for the Supreme Court, Rogers employed his feisty puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde to spread his belief in the equality of women. Tired of being a lady, Lady Elaine eventually became an astronaut and a news anchor.
Rogers even testified before the U.S. Senate, as the documentary shows, to oppose Nixon’s proposed cuts to funding for PBS. His lobbying effort melted the heart, and loosened the purse strings, of Republican Senator John Pastore of New Jersey.
Rogers wasn’t a faithful Republican during the Ronald Reagan years, either. He abhorred the nuclear arms race touted by Reagan, and in 1983 he penned episodes depicting King Friday as bumbling and silly for pursuing an arms race in the neighborhood while slashing funds required for music education.
In 1984, shortly after a presidential task force announced that there was no widespread hunger in the United States, Rogers broadcast episodes highlighting the desperation caused by hunger and the urgent need for King Friday to help eliminate it.
And while Reagan relentlessly pursued the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rogers traveled to Moscow, appeared on a Soviet children’s television show, and used his own program to suggest that Soviet people were nice and friendly, not evil residents of an Evil Empire.
President George H.W. Bush was also not immune to Rogers’s tendency to dissent from the policies of Republican presidents. While the Bush administration laid plans for the Persian Gulf War, Rogers lobbied for a bill that would have exempted from combat one parent of military couples or single parents who were their child’s sole provider. “We must not perpetuate abuse from one generation to the next — and separation from a young child’s security (their loved ones) is a gross form of abuse,” Rogers wrote.
This gets us to the heart of Rogers’ politics: the welfare of children. The thread that weaves through Rogers’ refusal to be a partisan hack for Republican or Democratic presidents was his abiding concern for the millions of boys and girls who tuned into his program. Neither a good Republican nor a faithful Democrat, Fred Rogers was first and foremost a fierce advocate, on screen and off, for a politics that safeguarded children from violence, hunger, and discrimination, and that helped them feel lovable and capable of loving others.
In an age when the government separates children from their immigrant parents, Rogers’ politics, like the documentary itself, are worth a standing ovation.
Michael G. Long is the author of “Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers.”
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