A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.
I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all. He puzzles me now as much as he did when I first met him at the door of the apartment he kept in New York City, dressed, as he’d warned me when we spoke on the phone and he invited me over, in a shabby blue bathrobe and a pair of slippers. Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.
I met Fred Rogers in 1998, when Esquire assigned me a story about him for a special issue on American heroes. I last spoke with him on Christmas Day 2002, when I called him to talk about an argument I’d had with my cousin; he died two months later, on February 27, 2003. In late 2014, I heard from two screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who were interested in using my Esquire story as the basis of a movie, and in January 2018, I received a call from the movie’s producer with the news that Tom Hanks had been cast as Fred Rogers, which meant, emphatically, that the movie would be made. A few months after that, I visited the set in Pittsburgh, where I met Matthew Rhys, the actor who had agreed to play … well, me, or some variant of me, a cynical journalist who in the end proves amenable to Fred’s life lessons—his ministry.
I had been thinking of starting this story at one of those points of departure, at one of those beginnings or one of those endings. But stories don’t only speak; they are spoken to, by the circumstances under which they are written. And so I have to start by mentioning that I have begun writing a story about Mister Rogers the day after two young men armed with assault rifles killed a total of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
I am often asked what Fred would have made of our time—what he would have made of Donald Trump, what he would have made of Twitter, what he would have made of what is generally called our “polarization” but is in fact the discovery that we don’t like our neighbors very much once we encounter them proclaiming their political opinions on social media. I often hear people say that they wish Fred were still around to offer his guidance and also that they are thankful he is gone, because at least he has been spared from seeing what we have become. In all of this, there is something plaintive and a little desperate, an unspoken lament that he has left us when we need him most, as though instead of dying of stomach cancer he was assumed by rapture, abandoning us to our own devices and the judgment implicit in his absence.
What would Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—have made of El Paso and Dayton, of mass murder committed to fulfill the dictates of an 8chan manifesto? What, for that matter, would he have made of the anti-Semitic massacre that took place last fall in his real-life Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill? The easy answer is that it is impossible to know, because he was from a different world, one almost as alien to us now as our mob-driven world of performative slaughters would be to him. But actually, I think I do know, because when I met him, one of the early school shootings had just taken place, in West Paducah, Kentucky—eight students shot while they gathered in prayer. Though an indefatigably devout man, he did not attempt to characterize the shootings as an attack on the faithful; instead, he seized on the news that the 14-year-old shooter had gone to school telling his classmates that he was about to do something “really big,” and he asked, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow’?” Fred decided to devote a whole week of his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the theme of “little and big,” encouraging children to embrace the diminutive nature of their bodies and their endeavors—to understand that big has to start little.
Fred Rogers was a children’s-TV host, but he was not Captain Kangaroo or Officer Joe Bolton. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was so appalled by what he saw on 1950s television—adults trying to entertain children by throwing pies in each other’s faces—that he joined the medium as a reformer. He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred, and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane. And although he made his living speaking to children, his message and example endure because he found a way to speak to all of us—to speak to children as respectfully as he spoke to adults and to speak to adults as simply as he spoke to children. Such fluency was the result not of spontaneous enthusiasm but rather of the rigorous editing he brought to bear on himself and everyone around him. When I first visited the Neighborhood 21 years ago, one of his in-house writers, Hedda Sharapan, told me what had happened when he’d enlisted her to write a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.”
And that’s it, really—his message to doctors was his message to politicians, CEOs, celebrities, educators, writers, students, everyone. It was also the basis of his strange superpowers. He wanted us to remember what it was like to be a child so that he could talk to us; he wanted to talk to us so that we could remember what it was like to be a child. And he could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.
The question, then, isn’t what Fred would do, what Fred would say, in the face of outrage and horror, because Fred was the most stubbornly consistent of men. He would say that Donald Trump was a child once too. He would say that the latest Twitter victim or villain was a child once too. He would even say that the mass murderers of El Paso and Dayton were children once too—that, in fact, they were very nearly still children, at 21 and 24 years old, respectively—and he would be heartbroken that children have become both the source and the target of so much animus. He would pray for the shooters as well as for their victims, and he would continue to urge us, in what has become one of his most oft quoted lines, to “look for the helpers.”
There is no doubt that he would try to be one of the helpers. The question is whether a man who saw evil in terms of big and little would be able to help.
“What do you think is going on here?” Bill Isler asked me one morning when we were driving to Fred’s hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Bill was the president of Fred’s company, Family Communications, and he hadn’t wanted Fred to cooperate with my story, because he had read my stories and knew the cruelty I was capable of. I had not yet emerged from the state of disrepute I’d entered when, in the first cover story I wrote for Esquire, I did an elaborate rhetorical dance around the sexuality of Kevin Spacey, a story of coy ill will that fooled no one. We’d been out to make a splash, and we did, earning national opprobrium and prompting Spacey’s agent to urge a Hollywood boycott of me and the magazine.
Indeed, I was assigned the story about Fred because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to “say the unsayable,” write about the nicest man in the world. I was too old to have grown up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and knew him primarily as the parodied version of himself. Now Fred was in the passenger seat of the car in front of us, writing scripts for his show, and I was with his brusque protector, who’d had no better luck protecting Fred than I’d had getting Fred to answer my questions.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m writing a story about Fred and he’s cooperating?”
“Come on,” Bill said. “Do you think this happens all the time?”
“This! Latrobe! The time he’s given you! He’s taking you to his parents’ grave, for God’s sake!”
“He’s Mister Rogers. Isn’t that what he does?”
“Don’t act naive. We have reporters come through here all the time. They come in the morning, they talk to Fred for 20 minutes, they go home at the end of the day and write their stories. You’re different. He’s taken an interest in you.” And here he emitted a mischievous chuckle.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, but there’s nothing you can do about it either,” he said, and an hour later I saw Mister Rogers urinating behind a tree in a cemetery.
To this day, I have no idea why Fred Rogers decided to be my friend, other than the obvious: I got lucky, and I was a child once too. But not only was his friendship enduring; his interest was abiding, and he frequently expressed it in the emails he sent from his AOL account, ZZZ143. Like the choreographed gestures he used every day on his show, his email address was intended to signify, the “ZZZ” attesting to the pacific fact that he slept soundly through the night, the “143” expressing both the number of letters required to say each word in “I love you” and the Planck’s constant of his weight every time he stepped on a scale.
For as long as I knew him, we corresponded, and recently some of that correspondence resurfaced when I did a data recovery on a 21-year-old laptop moldering away in my attic. I found 70 emails in all, each from the first year of our friendship, and each very much in keeping with the man I met, profiled, and eventually asked my deepest and most troubling questions. The emails are revealing in exactly the way Fred was revealing and obfuscatory in exactly the way he was obfuscatory. He disclosed very little about himself, even to his wife, Joanne—“Oh, he never told me anything,” she says now. But as a correspondent he was emotionally forthcoming and intimate, closing often with the assurance that he kept me in his thoughts and his prayers—“And, I guess you know, each morning I pray for you; I really do”—and sometimes with ministerial ardor. “You are loved with a greater love than anyone could ever imagine, Tom. I trust that you’ll never ever forget that.”
His emails were, like so much of what he wrote to so many he wrote to, love letters. Occasionally, he reported on his worldly endeavors—for instance, sharing the question he asked when he met the Dalai Lama: “When you were taken to Lhasa at age 5 were your parents allowed to come along?” But mostly, he wrote about faith, risking “heretical” notions in answer to what he called my “big questions.” Was God good? Was I? Fred’s faith in God was unshakable, and so was his faith in goodness itself. “God’s nature has grown and grown and grown all through the ages,” he wrote on October 25, 1998.
Yet at the heart of the original creation is that Word (call it Love, call it Grace, call it Peace …) that essence which is lodged somewhere within each of us that longs for ultimate expression. If we choose to allow it to grow we’ll be given help. If we choose otherwise we won’t be forced. If there is such a thing as a “dark corner” of God’s nature then I think it’s God’s refusal to go back on the promise of “the creation’s freedom to love or not.”
He was more overtly religious in his emails than he was in conversation or on television. “You’re moving very close to the Eternal, Tom,” he wrote on November 11, 1998. “And what’s more you’re recognizing that presence.”
It is a truism by now that there was no difference between Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers, that Fred was always Fred. It also happens to be true. He was implacably on message, because the message was in the fiber of his friendships. He worked hard on his friendships; he prepared for his friendships; he took notes on his friendships; he even kept files on his friendships, and not long ago I found out that he’d kept a file on me. The files are in his archives, at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe; apparently they are extensive—box after box of information and inspiration concerning those he loved—and in one of those boxes are the names of my wife, my dogs, and one of my nieces, who was facing trouble and for whom he prayed. There are also printouts of our correspondence and notes he took on our phone conversations, written on yellow legal pads in his eerily calligraphic hand.
Does this freak me out? No, because I used to wonder how he did it—how he was available to so many people, on so many different occasions. Now I know. I also remember that for all his scrupulous preparation, his conversation was never canned, but rather questing and free. Once, when I called to tell him the story of five people stopping their cars to help an ancient and enormous snapping turtle across a highway exit ramp in Atlanta, he asked if I was going to write about it. I said no, and asked him why he thought it might make a good story. And this was his response: “Because whenever people come together to help either another person or another creature, something has happened, and everyone wants to know about it—because we all long to know that there’s a graciousness at the heart of creation.”
I was 40 when I first met him, unsure that the work for which I was celebrated had not come at the cost of my humanity. I was 44 when I spoke with him for the last time, grateful that he had helped give my wife, Janet, and me the courage to finally begin the process of adopting our daughter. On Christmas Eve 2002, one of my cousins called our house, in his holiday cups and outraged that the year before I had chosen to obey an exacting deadline rather than attend the funeral of his father, whom I loved. Janet answered, and when she told him I wasn’t home, he took his anger out on her. I talked with him later; we argued and called it a night. But Janet couldn’t sleep, and in the small hours she found solace by asking, as both of us sometimes did and to this day sometimes do: “What would Mister Rogers do?”
The spirit of Mister Rogers counseled her to forgive the insults, and after she told me her story in the morning, I called Fred. “Thank you for calling, my dear,” he said, in a voice whose frailty I assigned to age and the morning hour. “How like you, to call on Christmas morning. How like you, to tell me that story.”
How like you. He had different things he told different people, and “how like you” was one of the things he told me, in his ongoing effort to convince me that I was a good person. It was the last thing he said to me, without telling me that he was already sick, that he was already in pain, that he was already dying. He told very few of his friends, as it turned out, and from the first time we spoke to the last, I was the kind of friend who told him things. I was not the kind of friend he told things to.
It was just the sort of providential timing that Fred enjoyed—that made him believe the universe was not only a loving place but also a humorous one. I was in Florida, in the spring of 2016. I had parked in front of the house where I was about to do the first interview for the book I had decided to write about my father. I was getting out of the car when my phone rang, with a call from an excited Micah Fitzerman-Blue about the Mister Rogers movie. “Noah and I finished a draft of our script! We’re very happy with it!”
“That’s fantastic!” I said.
“And we want you to read it with an open mind!”
“Open mind?” I asked.
“Well, basically everything in the script that’s about the relationship between you and Fred is very accurate!”
“But everything else—the relationship between you and your father and you and your wife—is made up!”
I read a copy of the script over the weekend, with an open mind. On Monday morning, I wrote Micah and Noah back, along with Peter Saraf, the producer at Big Beach, the company that had optioned my Esquire story, and asked them to change my name and the names of my family members. And that’s how I became Lloyd Vogel.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like the script. I did, especially the innovation of making the entire movie an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with the character of Fred Rogers speaking directly to the audience about the character of Tom Junod. And it wasn’t that I objected to the script’s fundamental premise, which was that my relationship with Fred was driven by the complexities of my relationship with my father, portrayed as a boozy philandering lounge act so down-at-the-heels that he sleeps in his Cadillac. My father, Lou Junod, was a boozy philanderer, to be sure. But he was also a fetishist of his own fragrant masculinity, the glories of which he expounded upon and prevailed on me to accept and evangelize in turn, as when, dressing for work, he would coat himself with oil, splash himself with Jean Naté, and then stand between me and his enormous mirror in nothing but black bikini underwear and implore me to “look—look at this body.”
I was well aware of his eccentricity, but unlike my character in the script, I had never rejected him or his message, which was that nothing is more important about a man than the way he looks, the way he carries himself, and the mystery of what my father called his “allure.” I hadn’t become a hard-bitten investigative journalist consumed by anger, but rather an ebullient charmer concerned by my capacity for silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation. I idolized my father, despite my mother’s warnings. I was seduced by him, and once I attained a degree of success I worried that I had no choice but to follow in the Bally-loafered footsteps of the man who had caused me—and my serially betrayed mother—such pain.
I responded to Fred’s entreaties not only because he offered me a different way of being a man but also because he was a seducer in his own right, with a different brand of charm. Fred gave me what I needed then and still need now: a choice. He allowed me to choose between two visions of manhood, a choice I suspect I’ll have to continue making for the rest of my life, which is why I’m writing my book and which is why I asked the producers of the movie to change the names. I’m writing the truth about Tom and Lou Junod. I decided to let Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue tell the truth about Lloyd and Jerry Vogel.
That’s what I told myself, anyway, because what I really thought was that it wouldn’t matter—the movie wasn’t going to get made. Then one morning in January 2018, my phone rang again, with a call from Peter Saraf, the producer at Big Beach. “I just wanted to tell you that we’ve cast the role of Fred,” he said. “It’s Tom Hanks, and it changes everything.”
It wasn’t the only thing that changed everything. Fred had been dead for nearly 15 years, and the changes in the world since then meant that the stakes were so much higher now. The story was no longer just about a midlife journalist choosing what kind of man he wanted to be; it was the story of a people choosing what kind of country we want to live in. And yet I kept my distance from the movie, and the character of Lloyd Vogel, even when the part went to Matthew Rhys, who, as the uxorious Russian spy in The Americans, expertly played the tortured nice guy capable of cruelties not just silken but appalling. He’s not me, I kept assuring myself, and the story is no longer mine.
But then I traveled to the set in Pittsburgh, where I met Matthew, with his abashed smile and his watchful spaniel eyes, and, um, Mr. Hanks, with his professional good cheer. They were obliging, and sat with me for obligatory photographs in the meticulously reconstructed milieu of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And that, strangely, was the encounter that moved me most of all—the encounter with the past. Matthew Rhys might have been playing Lloyd Vogel, but he was dressed as I used to dress back in the late ’90s, in a black mock turtleneck and an Armani blazer. The Neighborhood had been worn, almost seedy, when Fred was opening the door each day and trying to turn it into sacred ground. But there it was again, rebuilt from scratch, at once brand-new and 20 years longer in the tooth. And there I was, overwhelmingly aware that the only part of my life that someone had bothered to put back together piece by piece was the set of a children’s television show. It was part of my life. And now, once again, so was Fred.
I saw a rough cut of the movie this summer. I was alone in a screening room in New York City. I found a place in the array of red-leather seats and sat down. Suddenly the screen filled with light, I heard a familiarly tinkling piano, and Mister Rogers was talking to me—to us. Now, I should note that I was a paid participant in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I have a financial stake in its success. I am not an objective judge of it. But I have to admit as well that I had been worried about it after I visited the set in the fall, because Tom Hanks seemed too hale and hearty—too big—to play 143-pound Fred Rogers, and Matthew Rhys too dour and hangdog to play “Lloyd Vogel,” emphasis on the quotation marks. Those qualms disappeared as soon as Tom started talking, and as soon as I saw Matthew’s eyes. They were the same watchful eyes I’d seen when I met him in person, so dark they were almost black, but now they were brimming with something recognizable, at least to me—hurt, hope. It wasn’t that he was me; it was that he had something of mine, as though he were a pickpocket, or as though I’d gone to Ancestry.com, stumbled on the page of some distant cousin, and discovered that we were born in the same hour of the same day.
I had counted on the plot’s many departures from my life to insulate me from the emotional effect of seeing some version of myself up there, but in the screening room I had no such protection, because the director, Marielle Heller, had been so faithful to the essence of the story. A long time ago, a man had seen something in me I hadn’t seen in myself, and now I was watching him see something in me and couldn’t help but ask, all over again: Who was he? Who was I? And what did he see? “You love people like me,” Matthew Rhys tells Tom Hanks. And when Hanks asks, “What are people like you?,” Rhys answers, “Broken people.” And that broke me, though I had never uttered those words to Fred in my life. He saw something in me, yes. Did he also see through me? Was my brokenness so obvious to him back then? Was Fred’s offer of friendship also a form of judgment?
When the lights came up, I staggered out of that theater like a drunk, my eyes still wet, relieved but also exhausted, and took a seat on a park bench where truly broken people were slumped. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again I saw the afternoon sunlight of New York City shining on the bald head of my friend David Granger, who’d edited my original story for Esquire 21 years earlier. He wasn’t supposed to be there; he wasn’t scheduled to be there; he had no reason to be there, except for the reason Fred liked to offer when the universe gave him a surprise: “You just never know.”
It was the summer of 2018, and so it was the summer of Fred. It was also the summer of incivility—the summer when the very idea of civility was up for debate—and one night, in Tampa, Florida, the two converged.
It was the summer of Fred because of the release of Morgan Neville’s beautiful documentary about him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which became the highest-grossing biographical documentary ever. It was the summer of incivility because some progressive activists had decided that civility was a luxury we could no longer afford, an instrument of an intolerable status quo. How could we bother with civility when children were being put in cages? Two members of the Trump administration, Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen, were publicly scolded and shamed when they ate at restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then Trump’s press secretary, was refused service in Virginia.
Then, on June 22, Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, attended a showing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in downtown Tampa, and was confronted by protesters who condemned her for her legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act and her silence in the face of the administration’s family separations at the southern border. They yelled at her and called her a “horrible person,” and when I spoke with her a year later, she told me that they’d tried to stop her from entering the theater, shouted in her face with such vehemence that she was flecked with spit, and bullied her boyfriend in an attempt to provoke a fight. She watched the movie, but she was “shaking the whole time,” and when she was on her way out of the theater they accosted her again, videotaping her as she attempted to go to her car. On the tape, a woman is heard yelling: “Would Mister Rogers take children away from their parents? Would Mister Rogers take away health insurance? … What would Mister Rogers think about you and your legacy in Florida, taking away health insurance from people with preexisting conditions? Pam Bondi, shame on you!”
Fred Rogers was not a particularly political man, despite the fame he won for going to Capitol Hill in 1969 and fighting for the survival of public television. In all the conversations we had over the years, I can remember only one about politics, when in the last year of his life he worried about the inevitable buildup toward the inevitable war in Iraq. In our correspondence, he limited political discussion to a single email about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which came as an answer to one of my questions:
Last week I woke up thinking how I would like to go on the air and say something like “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone” or “The Lord’s property is always to have mercy” or some other outlandish thing, and then ask for a minute of silence to think about forgiveness for those who want it. In fact if our country could dwell on forgiveness for a while I think that would be the one real positive outcome of the pain which must be pervasive in the White House and beyond. I’ve already written letters to both the Clintons and the Gores saying that often “enormous growth comes out of enormous pain.” I trust that will be so for all of us. The attitude which makes me (sometimes physically) sick is the “holier than thou” one.
It was not a political answer, because it was an answer to everything. And yet from that email—from that everything—one can hazard a guess about Fred’s answers to the questions shouted at Pam Bondi in Tampa. It’s obvious that he would have been saddened by our country’s continued refusal to provide health care to all its citizens. It’s obvious that he would have been devastated by the cruelties committed in our name at the border, and shaken by our lack of mercy in all things, particularly our policies toward helpless children. But even more obvious is what his position would have been regarding the civility debate. Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.
Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear. What he would have thought of Pam Bondi’s politics is one thing; what he would have thought of Pam Bondi is quite another, because he prayed for the strength to think the same way about everyone. She is special; there has never been anyone exactly like her, and there never will be anyone exactly like her ever again; God loves her exactly as she is. He repeated this over and over, and that his name was invoked as a cudgel by activists who probably shed tears over the documentary has haunted me since I first saw the video from Tampa. It isn’t that he is revered but not followed so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.
I remember where I was when I found out he was gone. I sat at my desk early in the morning and opened up my laptop to AOL, which I still used, in part because Fred did. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but kept expecting to, and then I did: There was a picture of him on the “AOL News” page. I didn’t even read the headline. I began to weep, and woke up Janet: “Mister Rogers died!”
But I also remember where I was when I realized he was not coming back. It was just this year, and I had gone to my alma mater, SUNY Albany, which had been rechristened the University at Albany, for a showing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was watching the movie for the third time, and toward the end Fred said something in a late-in-life interview I somehow hadn’t heard before—that “the real job that we have” was to “make goodness attractive in the so-called next millennium.”
His words struck me as prophetic, but also, because they were some 20 years old and I knew how it all turned out, as an epitaph. Of course, we have failed the challenge, and failed it utterly, to the extent that nobody except perhaps Ellen DeGeneres will even take it up. And that’s when it hit me: He has no successors.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became so popular because it makes people cry unashamedly, because it shows what radical kindness actually looks like, because it depicts a man who gave his life to what turned out to be a hopeless cause—the cause of sacralizing mass media. He was a genius; he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved. But he lost. He knew what he was up against; he knew from the start that the fragmentation of the jump cut would lead to the fragmentation of everything else, and that the fragmentation of everything else would lead us to the first and final temptation, the temptation of hatred. He lost, because the great conceit of the internet is that it has unveiled and unmasked us, that it shows us as we really are and our neighbors as they really are, and that hate is more viral than love. How would Fred Rogers have responded to Twitter? He would have signed up for an account, @ZZZ143, #YouAreSpecial; he was not one to back away from the fray. But Twitter is a platform consecrated to the eternal pie fight—to the purposes of protest, complaint, and particularly punishment—where nobody is special and nobody is invulnerable. Who would have been Fred’s first troll? Who would have taken it upon themselves to “school” Fred, to “call him out,” to “educate” him? Who would have told him that his faith in us was misplaced, and informed him—and us—that Mister Rogers was wrong?
We went out after the movie, a bunch of us convened by the New York State Writers Institute, sitting at a long table in downtown Albany. I sat at one end, and toward the close of the evening a woman named Theresa Bourgeois came over from the other end and sat next to me. She introduced herself and said, “You don’t know me, but I have a question to ask. What are you going to do now?”
“What am I going to do?”
“Yes. What are you going to do with this moment? Fred Rogers gave it to you. What are you going to do with it?”
In 1998, I wrote a story about Fred Rogers; in 2019, that story has turned out to be my moral lottery ticket. I’d believed that my friendship with Fred was part of my past; now I find myself in possession of a vast, unearned fortune of love and kindness at a time when love and kindness are in short supply. I keep telling myself that I don’t know how to answer Theresa’s question, that I don’t know what to do next, because Fred never asked anything of me. But of course he did. I have read his old emails, and I can see that he was very clear about what he wanted from me and everybody else. He never stooped to proselytizing. But he lived a life of prayer, and he wanted us—he wanted me—to pray.
On September 5, 1998, Fred Rogers wrote an email after I asked him whether he had seen the big movie of the day, Saving Private Ryan, and whether he had ever contemplated the possibility of military service. He answered as follows:
No, we didn’t see Pvt. Ryan. Joanne didn’t want to, and I guess I didn’t either. I remember so well those days when we huddled around the radio listening to the news of battles and finally the war’s end. I remember the V days and the release of the prisoners. In fact I remember crying when I heard about the release of the prisoners. I think we all have certain prisons within us, and such news “releases” are sometimes … in some hearts … taken very personally.
I have no idea how I would have responded to a call to the war. I may have had to do alternate service … as did the Friends. I have a friend (not a Quaker friend) who was in the Ambulance Corps. I would have probably been good at something like that. I would not have been good at shooting people though; I don’t think I could have done that.
There are a lot of people who still believe what they read about Fred on the internet—that he was a Navy SEAL who wore sweaters to cover the tattoos on his arms, each one celebrating a proud kill. I saw him standing in a locker room after his daily swim, naked as a jaybird, and can attest that his arms remained innocent of ink. But I guess that people have to call him a warrior simply to account for him, for the peculiar power of his pacifism, and in some ways they have him exactly right, as well as his wife, Joanne. Though they both called me “My dear,” they were warriors, the both of them, and Joanne remains so at 91, with her gap-toothed smile and her mobcap of curls and her twinkling eyes and her merry chuckle. I traveled to Pittsburgh for the premiere of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? simply to see her again, and when I did see her she was bleeding from a gash on her cheek. She had fallen on her way to the car sent to pick her up, but she had gotten up and now she was exchanging greetings with friends and well-wishers without any alarm or even self-consciousness about the rivulet of bright-red blood flowing down her face. “Oh, that,” she said when I asked about it. “You don’t think I’m going to let a thing like that get in the way of watching the movie, do you?”
As for Fred: It’s true that he lost, and that the digitization of all human endeavor has devoured his legacy as eagerly as it has devoured everything else. But that he stands at the height of his reputation 16 years after his death shows the persistence of a certain kind of human hunger—the hunger for goodness. He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater. He is a warrior, all right, because he is not just unarmed, outgunned, outnumbered; he is long gone, and yet he keeps up the fight.
And now he is being played by Tom Hanks, who also played the doomed hero John Miller in Saving Private Ryan. When I met Tom on the set of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I was struck by how cordial he was and how hardworking—that he worked as hard on his cordiality as he did on everything else. He has this in common with Fred, who was a good man who worked very hard at goodness. Tom’s presence on the set moved me, because I kept thinking of John Miller, a character in a movie Fred and Joanne Rogers couldn’t bring themselves to watch. He dies to save the life of the eponymous private, to whom he says, with his last breaths, “Earn this. Earn it.” The last thing Fred Rogers ever said to me was “How like you.” He gave so much to me, so much trust and friendship, without asking me to earn it. But still I wonder whether I have. Still I find myself asking for his blessing, and like the aged Private Ryan after he walks away from the grave of the officer who rescued him, I issue a plea that sounds a little bit like a prayer:
Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good life, then tell me what to do now.
This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “What Would Mister Rogers Do?”