Book Review: Peaceful Neighbor
Author: Michael G. Long
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Mr Rogers' Neighborhood on Wikipedia
From what I can gather, Mr Rogers only broadcast his television program during Republican Presidential administrations because according to Long these were the only presidents Mr. Rogers was critical of. Try as I did to find a Democrat who was the object of Mr Rogers' ire (or Long's for that matter), I could not find it. Somehow Long manages even to make the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal sound like something out of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe–peace, calm, and somehow righteous. This is sad. I'm one who grew up watching Mr Rogers and enjoying the work he did–especially the Neighborhood of Make Believe and I think this would have been a fantastic book if the author's bias had not shown through so abundantly.
I am all about criticizing the government and those who are in positions of authority, but I think if it is going to be done, it should be done in an evenhanded sort of way. That is, all politicians–regardless of party stripe–should be criticized. Michael Long simply did a poor job of being evenhanded in this book. It makes for a long, frustrating book–regardless of whether or not the reader happens to be a fan of Mr Rogers. Somehow Long manages to skip over the entire Carter administration–as if Mr. Rogers had nothing to say about Jimmy Carter or his policies–and plow a straight line from Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Bush. (Clinton is mentioned only a couple of times an both times, ironically, rather favorably.)
The problem with this book is that it only has one point of view (and it wasn't that of Fred Rogers) and I'm inclined to believe that Mr. Rogers was far more complex than Long would have us to believe. Instead I think this book is an interpretive history pushing Long's agenda. It's not that Mr. Rogers didn't do or believe the things written about, but Long writes them in a vacuum of sorts–not really giving us a full picture of Fred Rogers.
From what I can find, there were close to 900 episodes of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood film at various points between 1968-2000, which might also cause us to wonder how George W. Bush made his way into this book (although there was some interaction between President Bush and Mr. Rogers in later days of Rogers' life), and yet we are supposed to believe that what Long has given us is representative of the whole of Mr. Rogers. His bias in the book is a very real problem for the book and for those who who wish to remember Mr. Rogers fondly. As an example of Long's bias, consider this quote concerning George W. Bush–who was never president while Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was broadcasting new episodes:
Not everyone followed Rogers's [sic.] counsel. President George W. Bush favored fighting violence with violence and quickly authorized the War on Terror, promising to hunt down and kill terrorists who threatened the United States. Of course, rather than doing the dirty work himself, he relied partly on the soldier-parents of young children. Given Rogers's [sic.] convictions about child abuse and war, he must have seen the president as yet another child abuser in a long line of presidents and politicians. (77, my emphasis).
This is, in my opinion, simply ridiculous and irresponsible. He must? Really? Fred Rogers has been dead since 2003 and now it is safe to extrapolate his thoughts to accuse a former president of being a child abuser because he fulfilled his sworn duty to protect the constitution by sending volunteer citizen-soldiers to war so that people like Long would continue to enjoy the very freedom he enjoys? And let's be honest, George W. Bush acted with the full support and authority of both houses of congress, a group of people that includes men, women, black, white, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Republican and Democratic. A principled disagreement is one thing; attacking character is something else entirely. Long is rather unprincipled when it comes to his criticism of those with whom he disagrees–quite unlike the person he writes about in this book.
But the point is this: before George W. Bush became president of the United States of America, there were eight solid years of Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton who also engage in various un-peacelike activities during his reign. And yet Long manages to conveniently skip all mention of Clinton's war activities altogether. It is mind-boggling, frankly, that such bias even manages to find its way into print without an editor pointing it out to the author and saying something like, "Hey, you might want to soften the blow a little." And as noted above, when Clinton is mentioned, it is hardly for the sake of calling him a womanizer or a cheat or a liar much less a child abuser when he, too, launched missiles at foreign nation or when he took advantage of a young intern. I'm sure Mr. Rogers must have had some opinions about those activities. Yet Long neither quotes nor speculates about Mr. Rogers' thoughts.
At the end of the book, I am less concerned about Mr. Rogers and his vegetarianism (who cares?), his championing of minority rights (yay!), his opposition to war (again, yay!), his pacifism (yay!), or his overall ethic of 'can't-we-all-just-get-alongism'. Really. War is not nice. Hate is bad. Bigotry is evil. Peace and love are good. And Christian people, like Mr. Rogers, should be at the front, leading the charge against such evils in this world by demonstrating in their own lives and churches that these things have been overcome. With that said, I am concerned that Long has not given us a complete picture of Mr. Rogers and I think this will ultimately frustrate some readers who will grow weary of his obvious bias. I know I did.
So in the end, here's my take. As far as Mr. Rogers is concerned, I have no opinion. He is an icon of American History, a pacifist, a gentle giant, a man who loved children, worked hard, was very wealthy, and demonstrated his love and compassion towards all people. He used his platform to preach his gospel as was his American right to do. Great. I applaud him for that.
On the other hand, Long's presentation of Mr. Rogers is exceptionally frustrating. The book's chapters are a bit unbalanced, they are slanted towards what some might call a 'liberal bias', and, as noted above, they are unfair in their presentation of presidential administrations. If Mr. Rogers loved all people as they are then I find it hard to believe that he would have been as hateful (that's not really the word I'm looking for, but it will have to do) towards Republican presidents–to the utter exclusion of Democratic ones–as Long makes him out to be. Sometimes I was left with the impression that Fred Rogers had such a singular focus and that he was somewhat tone-deaf to the people around him–as if the only way he could really communicate with others was through television camera. Maybe the word is 'hard-headed.'
Mr. Rogers was subtly subversive.
The book is complete with end notes and a stout index. I appreciate the few graphics (photos) that were interspersed throughout the book. And, to be sure, I did very much enjoy the trips to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Rekindling my memories King Friday, Trolley, and Daniel Striped Tiger was pure joy. This made the book somewhat worth the effort. Fred Rogers was truly, somewhat ahead of his time in some regards and I am glad for a man of such courage and conviction.
I just wish Long had not messed with my recollections of Mr. Rogers with his biased reflections on a few episodes of the Neighborhood.
[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book.]