America was divided, tense and angry in 1969, when Fred Rogers faced a U.S. Senate Subcommittee poised to grant President Richard Nixon his requests for deep budget cuts for public broadcasting.
The news was full of assassinations, riots and images from Vietnam. The pain even soaked into the gentle, calm, safe world of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Rogers told the senators why he kept telling children they were unique and special. But he also talked about fear, anger and confusion -- because that's what children were feeling.
Then he read the lyrics of one of his deceptively simple songs: "What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?"
The song stressed that kids can make good choices: "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this. And know … that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can."
The senators nixed the cuts, and the Rev. Fred Rogers -- an ordained Presbyterian minister -- continued with his complex blend of television, child development and subtle messages about faith. The Senate showdown is a pivotal moment in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", a Focus Features documentary just released to theaters nationwide.
"The bottom line for Fred Rogers was that the faith he had in God -- Christian tradition and his own beliefs -- infused everything that he did," said the Rev. George Wirth, a friend and pastor to Rogers for two decades. "He was not a grab you by the lapels man, obviously. He was more careful, and I would say prayerful, in terms of how he discussed faith."
In the documentary, Rogers summed up his approach: "Love is at the root of everything -- all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become." The space created by a TV lens, between himself and a child, was "very holy ground," he said.
Mister Rogers used a strange strategy to become a force in American culture. Basically, he took the alleged essentials of children's entertainment -- shallow characters, loud action, flashy graphics and stupid gags -- and ignored them all. Over and over, he slowly donned his comfy sweater and sneakers and quietly told kids that he wanted to be their neighbor.
But he also kept addressing questions about why bad things happen to good people, the hard questions that sent Rogers to seminary, even while he kept working in television. While his cheery attitude framed everything, Rogers was actually handling -- in kindergarten-level scripts -- ancient questions about "theodicy," attempting to reconcile the existence of a loving God with the reality of evil in the world.
After the death of Sen. Robert Kennedy, Daniel Tiger -- the puppet that frequently voiced Rogers' point of view -- asked: "What does 'assassination' mean?" Another script focused on divorce. When a fish died in the Neighborhood's tank, Rogers talked about the reality of death, but stressed the goodness of life and the need for hope.
"That show was about as close to Easter as he could get on TV," said Wirth.
Critics accused Rogers of spoiling children with all that "special" talk. And there were strange rumors, including whispers that he was gay. In the film, a gay member of the Neighborhood cast described his love and respect for Rogers -- a man he considered as straight as an arrow. Rogers was married for 50 years, until his death in 2003, and his wife Joanne told the Los Angeles Times: "I've heard people say that men and women can't be friends and lovers. We really were friends, and I know we were lovers."
More than anything else, said Wirth, Rogers was a realist who believed that "nobody is ever abandoned, no one is every really alone, because God is in the Neighborhood, too. … That's what Fred believed and that tells you what you need to know about who he was.
"That person you saw on the television was real. Mister Rogers was real. That was the real Fred Rogers."