If you have a spare 30 minutes and a box of tissues, go read the 1998 Esquire article about Fred Rogers written by journalist Tom Junod. It’s the piece about which the upcoming movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was written. Starring in that movie is actor Tom Hanks. If you have another half hour (and maybe a few more tissues), read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s recent piece on Hanks/Neighborhood in the New York Times.
So Tom Hanks is as nice as you think he is and exactly what you hope him to be, which is great unless you are someone trying to tell a good story about him, with elements like an arc and narrative tension. “Saintly Actor Playing Saintly Public Television Children’s Host Mister Rogers Is Saintly” is not a great story. But what am I supposed to do? He sat facing me, cheerful and focused and willing. Maybe this could just be a story that makes you feel better.
If you’re feeling like a fuzzy slipper right out of the dryer, this would be a good time to go all intellectual and ruin it. So let’s define “nice.” What is nice in a person?
With Hanks, it’s respecting people’s time: being on time, or even a bit early. It’s being considerate of guests–letting others speak their turn without sucking all the air out of a panel or room, or a movie set. It’s being observant of others around him, whether on the street, on the set, or the reporter interviewing him about his latest movie. It’s being self-aware that Tom Hanks is just another person on planet earth, and it might just make life better to be pleasant–if not only for others, then also for himself.
Mr. Rogers, the television personality, is in a whole other universe of nice. And outside that universe, is Fred Rogers, the man who played the character on-screen, who himself applied a level of discipline to self-awareness, consideration, observation, and respect that few in public life ever achieve. Up before dawn each day, Rogers swam, prayed, and prepared for each day: body, mind, and soul. He did this so that anyone encountering him would obtain his full and total attention, and feel the courtesy and care like an aura around him.
It was so palpable that it changed many people’s lives who encountered it, including one hard bitten reporter named Tom Junod.
…all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella…
Of course, both Rogers and Hanks grew up in an age before social media. As did every boomer and half the Gen Xers. Millennials are a different sort, and Gen Z or whatever is next have never known a life without some kind of electronic genie to serve up their heart’s content, connecting them to a global cornucopia of media and knowledge.
In social media, consideration of others is optional, you see. Or rather, you don’t see. You can’t really observe the other person tweeting behind a keyboard (if it really is a person these days). You can’t pick up non-verbal cues: are they feeling well? Are they cringing? Are they interested in what you’re saying? None of these matter when you’re already thinking of your reply to their reply and how you might roast them if they turn out to be creeps or trolls.
The only people in Rogers and Hanks youth who could experience that kind of disconnectedness, isolation, yet achieve public display of fleeting fame in a moment were–well, people like Rogers and Hanks–those on the other side of a camera. Brodesser-Akner wrote:
When Hanks watched those tapes, he saw that Mister Rogers was “always talking to a single kid, a single person two feet on the other side of the camera screen. They said when you were talking to Fred, you felt as though you were the only person in the world that mattered to him.”
Rogers managed to capture courtesy and broadcast it, personally, to each viewer. These days, you’d be lucky to be heard at all if you tried it.
If you ask me what’s wrong with the world, I’ll tell you that it’s mostly the loss of courtesy. More than simple politeness, though being polite is a requisite aspect of courtesy. The etymology of that word, courtesy, leads to “courtly ideals; chivalry, chivalrous conduct; elegance of manners, politeness.” Also “a courteous act, act of civility or respect.”
We have far too little of civility, respect, self-awareness, politeness, and plain old-fashioned nice in the world right now. I fear that with the rise of social media, and generations world-wide who have never known life without it, there is no going back to the days when it mattered.
And since courtesy no longer matters, we’ve entered the age of cursing. Even boomers have moved there. Especially in celebrities, and now in politics. We used to be able to say about a politician, that person might be an S.O.B., but at least they’re nice about it. Now it’s just “human scum.” It’s not even in person, just tweeted and retweeted, and now it includes you, or maybe it doesn’t, but nobody cares because everyone just wants to curse others.
The generation that grew up since the millennium, including kids like Kyle Kashuv, never realized that their words online, or captured in a cloud-hosted shared document, might boomerang into their life plans. And that’s really sad, because it eliminates the phase of life called “growing up” where you exchange the stupid things kids do for the responsible things grown-ups do. Or at least grown-ups are supposed to do.
Now, kids have to grow up immediately, with no Mr. Rogers to gently guide their minds in respect, observation, self-control, and courtesy. Instead, they are bombarded with ever-more-shocking stupidity online. One mistake on social media can literally change the course of a young person’s life.
Junod, who had lost that thing, his courtesy, or that innocence, that care about others, wrote “What is grace?” just before his heart was opened in prayer, hand-in-hand with Fred Rogers, a truly courteous man. Can we, as a society, ever get it back?
I fear we’ve lost it, and buried it, and cursed the ground where it’s buried. I fear that the current political climate, combined with the graceless use of social media; the misuse of technology to summon the police SWAT team to your home, ready to bash in your door and shoot you because they think you murdered your family; or to summon a mob to your home by publishing your private information to all; these things have created a monster which we can neither tame nor cage.
And where do we see our politicians today? Do we see another George H.W. Bush, a man steeped in courtesy, who left this note to the man who succeeded him in the Oval Office:
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
It was a tough campaign. Lord knows, Bill Clinton was far from perfect, and offered a tempting target for lots of dirt, that might stick. A recent piece by Peter Baker in the New York Times recounted that time in 1992, in contrast to what’s being debated and testified to right now in Congress:
The 1992 episode involving Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker provides an intriguing case study in the way previous administrations have viewed seeking political help overseas. At the time, Mr. Bush was trailing in the polls and eager for any weapon to turn things around.
Representatives Robert K. Dornan, Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham of California and Sam Johnson of Texas urged the president to ask Russia and Britain for help.
Mr. Dornan, reached last week, said Mr. Baker offered no objections during the meeting. “Baker sat there in the Oval Office like a bump on a log,” he recalled. “He said nothing.” If Mr. Baker advised Mr. Bush not to reach out to foreign governments, then he did so after the congressmen had left, Mr. Dornan said.
Mr. Dornan said that was a mistake and that Mr. Bush should have done as Mr. Trump has. “The bottom line from me was, ‘If you don’t do this, Mr. President, leader of the free world, you will lose,’” Mr. Dornan said. “And he didn’t do it and he lost. Baker cost Bush that second term.”
We didn’t hear from Bush 41 on this episode, but we did hear from Samuel K. Skinner, who was Bush’s chief of staff before Jim Baker.
As for seeking help from Russia and Britain, Mr. Baker declined to comment last week, but his peers said he did exactly as they would have. “It would have been ludicrous at that stage to do anything,” Mr. Skinner said. “Baker’s decision was obviously the right one.”
Bush was one of the most courteous men in the last 40 years to inhabit the White House. He was known for his hand-written thank-you notes, reminisced by Sarah L. Kaufman in the Washington Post after Bush’s death.
To Frito-Lay, he penned his “sincere thanks for all those pork rinds.”
To the Marine who dropped his rifle in a parade at the Marine Barracks, in front of his commander in chief and first lady Barbara Bush, Bush wrote: “I want to thank you and the others in the platoon for a super performance . . . Please thank all involved in the drill.”
To his granddaughter, on the day she was born: “I am a happy Gampy because you’re here.”
In that age, when the Greatest Generation fought their battles and returned home to build the America they’d fought for, great men and women were known for their civility, their kindness, their courtesy–for being nice.
Sadly, something has died and must be resurrected.
These days, having lost that, and even having lost the compass pointing the way to that, I fear we will be remembered not for our hand-written thank you notes, but for our tweets.