Joseph Sabino Mistick: Politicians can learn much from Mister Rogers
As Democrats struggle to find a national message for the 2020 presidential race, they should look to Fred Rogers, who reached out to generations of Americans with wisdom and kindness and strength. Mister Rogers died in 2003, but there was a real authenticity to how he lived and what he believed that never grows old.
The current Mister Rogers resurgence is also real and authentic. The recently released documentary, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” has earned box-office success and great reviews. A feature film, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, is in production. And scores of inspirational Mister Rogers quotations are posted daily on social media sites.
It might seem odd that Democrats should take their lead from a lifelong Republican, but Mister Rogers came from an era in which political parties often compromised and found common ground. Country before party was the rule, and governing was the shared goal.
We might think that the political world would have been foreign to a contemplative Presbyterian minister. All you have to do is watch the six-minute video of Fred Rogers' 1969 appearance before a U.S. Senate Committee to see how this worked.
Notoriously tight-fisted Democrat John Pastore of Rhode Island was the chairman and a $20 million grant to fund public broadcasting was at stake.
Arguing that public television should put the emotional well-being of children first, Mister Rogers carried the day.
Pastore, after admitting to “feeling goose bumps,” concluded by saying, “I think it's wonderful. And you just earned the $20 million.” Try to imagine that in today's Washington — a Republican and a Democrat coming together to fund programs that are carefully crafted to enhance the lives of our children.
Theodore Parker, the 19th-century Unitarian minister who inspired the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Politics is the science of urgencies.” Mister Rogers understood those urgencies. And he especially understood that the best of politics involves establishing and strengthening our communities.
After 9/11, Mister Rogers appeared in public service announcements aimed at helping adults talk to their children about tragedy. He repeated his mother's advice in times of danger. “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” he said. “Because if you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope.”
In 1969, when many public pools were segregated, Mister Rogers shared a wading pool with Francois Clemmons, who played the African-American police officer in the make-believe neighborhood. The lesson was simple as the camera lingered on two black feet and two white feet soaking together.
And in 1981, when people with disabilities were nearly invisible, Mister Rogers had a quiet on-air conversation with Jeffrey Erlanger, a beaming 10-year-old who was confined to an electric wheelchair. They became lifelong friends, and those few moments helped change public attitudes toward reasonable accommodations for our fellow citizens.
Democrats, indeed all politicians, would be well advised to study the example, values and manners of Fred Rogers. He listened more than he talked and he showed a steadfast unwavering willingness to help — with truth and kindness always.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).