#2. He Effected Change Through Rational Debate
Look, I know you've heard this one. But I'm going to ask you to consider it from a different, still-amazing angle.
As our own Doc Sargent has noted, PBS hadn't even gotten started before Nixon tried to chop its budget in half. Imagine I cut 50 percent off of you. You'd either die of blood loss or become one of those limbless torsos that shrieks all night until its caretakers muffle it with a laudanum-soaked handkerchief. Nixon wanted you to live in a world where PBS was a screaming, limbless torso. And even though that would still do less damage to their brains than The Annoying Orange, I don't think kids should be exposed to it.
Mr. Rogers charmed away that idea with the power of lyric poetry:
And you think file sharing's a problem now? Back in the day, a trillion-dollar industry was nearly aborted because the threat was too great that people might watch Three's Company Too on their own schedule. Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers thought you should be able to go out and play, then watch his show at your leisure. Naturally the Motion Picture Association of America was there to howl and moan about it with ridiculous hyperbole. Guess who the Supreme Court backed? Mr. Rogers, right?
Ho ho! No -- this is America. Shrill hyperbole always outshouts the voice of reas- wait, this can't be right. It says they did indeed side with Mr. Rogers.
Why It Made Him Great
So yes, we're covering some old ground here when we could have repeated that myth about the time thieves returned his stolen car. But it's important ground to retread, because Mr. Rogers was one of those folks who quietly move mountains. He got things done -- and those things? Those things gave a lot of people the few moments in their lives when they felt loved and capable of greatness.
Even when not soothing the Senate with song like it was some kind of minotaur, Rogers treated everyone the same way he treated children ... which is to say, respectfully. In plain, fair, frank language, he explained good ideas rather than trying to win fights, which makes him the antithesis of the Internet. If Mr. Rogers had heard Rebecca Black's "Friday," he would have thought it a wonderful thing that she had a passion, and parents willing to invest so much in it.
Because at the end of the day, when we're offline, don't most of us want the same things for the people we love? Mr. Rogers just had a much bigger Google+ circle than most of us.
Virtue Unlocked: Respect
#1. He Understood the True Meaning of Religion
If you live anywhere in America, you've probably been cornered at one point by a stranger who really, really wants you to know about the only way you'll get to heaven -- maybe it's faith, maybe it's good works, maybe it's buying the new iPhone. Who knows? But definitely not that last one.
Fred Rogers, faithful Presbyterian minister, was not in the business of telling you how to feel bad about yourself. All he cared about was educating you to the fact that you were born a human being with dignity and respect.
In 1997, he won a Daytime Emmy, because for some reason they didn't just divide those evenly between Mr. Rogers and Muppets. And here's what he said:
Not only did he thank everyone, he asked if everyone else would, too -- not because it's gracious, but because it's good for us to do. And then in 1999, he did it again at his TV Hall of Fame induction. (That clip comes at the end of one of his best episodes, when he met Jeff Erlanger and had just the nicest conversation.)
Fred Rogers knew that a spiritual leader should elevate the people in his care to be their best. He did not waste his time hating things or making fun of people's efforts. He sliced through the exterior and talked to the child inside them or the adult they would be. If he had lived to see Honey Boo Boo, he would have told her that she has an inner beauty that no judge can take away from her. And if he had endured 9/11 with us, he- oh, he did:
Why It Made Him Great
"I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead," he says. He didn't live in a world full of songs and puppets. He brought songs and puppets to a world that was scared and tired and vulnerable. A lot of people of a lot of faiths are waiting for the Messiah, but even if one arrives, how are you going to tell the difference between him and Fred Rogers?
He explained death and divorce and disease to kids so that they'd learn which fears were justified and which they could relinquish. His job wasn't only to help children grow up, but to remind adults, always, that they had been children once, and that someone, somewhere, had loved them.
And when he died himself, of stomach cancer -- which you might recognize as The Cancer Nobody Deserves, But Especially Not Mr. Rogers -- he left us all, yes, poorer, but so much richer. He gave a lot of us the tools to be kind to each other. And any praise would give a short measure of the man, so the only worthy testament to who he was is the life he lived, without judgments, without politics, with selflessness and love. He was our neighbor, and he loved us.
He saw a beautiful world, so he created a beautiful world, and all the people around him -- all the cynical, sarcastic, tired, busy people -- knew that we were seeing something that would not happen twice in our lives. And we all respected what he had made, because he made it for us -- even when he himself was tired and busy.
Virtue Unlocked: Selflessness
March 20th is the greatest American's birthday, and we should all remember what he taught, not only that day, but every day. If Congress has any memory at all, it will go further than the resolutions honoring him and make his birthday a national holiday. The man gave literally a third of this country something that only some of us got at home if we were lucky: an adult who cared about them, and a teacher of the human spirit.
But we can't wait for Congress to mark it. We have to make sure we remember Rogers Day, and the other 364 days, by telling people we love them just the way they are. Surprise people with kindness, and make the most of the gift he gave us. Let's turn our world into his Neighborhood.
Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers, from all your neighbors. 143.
Brendan McGinley means it.
For other times Brendan got mushy, check out Love and his Letter to My Unborn Son.
EDIT: Hey, gang -- Cracked member villainous (yes, that is his/her real and legal binding name for all time) made a petition to make Rogers Day a real thing. This is that. If you want to sign, groovy.