Anybody who has worked in the communications media for any length of time grasps the truth of Lord Acton’s famous axiom that “power tends to corrupt.”
The lowliest reporter for the smallest weekly newspaper understands it; the editors of the great dailies sense it urgently; writers and performers with national audiences feel it profoundly.
Some are corrupted by it, but the saving word in Acton’s maxim is “tends.” One will not be corrupted “absolutely” unless one attains absolute power. Nevertheless, the greater your power becomes, the greater the temptation to misuse it – and to deceive oneself that it is not misused.
If you doubt this, watch the anchors of any network news broadcast. The temptation to exercise their influence is too much for any of them to resist. It’s a rare bird who attains national eminence in media and yet retains the willpower to overcome temptation.
We lost one such last week with the passing of Fred Rogers – a rare bird, indeed.
He was an ordained minister – Presbyterian, if that matters – whose calling was to children and whose medium was television.
I have to say Mr. Rogers’ magic escaped me for some time. His delivery – so low-key, so deliberate, so slow – I couldn’t understand why he was on television. If you were looking for charisma, you had to change the channel.
“Sesame Street” I could understand. It had zip and zing. Its puppets (Muppets) were wild and witty, while those in Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make Believe were stiff, little more than dolls or stuffed animals on sticks.
I was in graduate school in my children’s – and therefore my – “Sesame Street” days. I was working on an extremely dull thesis and otherwise buried in study, but I was conscious that my children plopped down in front of the television for that lively program.
Only gradually did I become aware that they stayed put for Mr. Rogers, which followed, and were just as entranced by the corny voice characterizations of King Friday and Meow Meow Pussycat as they were by Bert, Ernie and Big Bird.
Once I watched Fred Rogers work, I got it.
I had paused on my way through the living room on the way to my desk and watched Mr. Rogers show annoyance.
Mr. McFeely had just left, and Fred Rogers clearly was bothered by his rush to complete his “Speedy Delivery” rounds.
“Speedy Delivery! Speedy Delivery!” said Mr. Rogers, with just a touch of sarcasm. He was telling the small children that were his audience that it was OK to be annoyed.
In fact, just about everything he did told very young children – anywhere from 3 to about 7 years old – it was all right to be annoyed, upset or confused. He told them they were OK if they were any of these things. He was calming, reassuring, affirming, accepting – loving.
He was so good at telling kids they were OK that his program lasted a third of a century – and we can expect it will last a good deal longer in re-runs.
Fred Rogers was a natural target for parody, as is anybody with truly distinctive style and content. Eddie Murphy did his “Mr. Rogers” send-up on “Saturday Night Live,” stand-up comics did their impressions, and there even were some comedy records “doing” Mr. Rogers.
He was instantly recognizable and almost universally admired, and that, good readers, is power. The wonder of it all is the power didn’t change him. He knew who he was and was as comfortable in his own skin as he was in his trademark cardigan sweater and sneakers.
Fred Rogers knew what he did well, he stuck with it and he did not succumb to the temptation to make something more of it. This doesn’t mean he was without ambition. It means his ambition matched his gifts – a rare and happy conjunction.
Assuming there’s an afterlife, we can make a pretty safe bet where he has gone. It already was an excellent neighborhood … it’s even better now. Ours, however, is markedly sadder.