Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted 40 years ago today, a few hours before Langston Hughes died from complications following prostate cancer surgery. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian, chose not to pursue a career in the ministry because he loathed television and wanted to create programming that could “be of nurture to those who watch and listen.” Unlike the bloated religious charlatans who would come to dominate American public life over the course of his career, Rogers infused his deep faith into his programming in a way that was subtle, nondenominational and sincerely attuned to the lives of children rather than the abusive political demands of adulthood.
One of Rogers’ more important interventions took place during a period of accelerated tension between the US and the Soviet Union. In a memorable series of episodes that aired in 1983, Rogers explored the perverse logic of the cold war arms race while also prefiguring the foreign policy disasters of a later decade. During that week’s programming, King Friday XIII suspected Cornflake S. Pecially (“Corney”) — a rocking-chair manufacturer in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe — of developing munitions for the Southwood community. In response, Friday orders Corney to supply him with similar parts. “If Southwood has a million [bombs],” Friday blustered, “we will have a million and one.”
As it turned out, Southwood was building a bridge. Things worked out OK in the Neighborhood, though not so much in real life.
At the conclusion of that week, the famous verse from Isaiah appeared on the screen after Fred Rogers wished his audience well:
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning forks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
Fred Rogers was also something of a B-Boy: