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March 8, 2012 7:55 pm
During his topsy-turvy career, Barack Obama has been compared to everyone from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler. But in recent days, the president has started to remind me of a man named Fred Rogers.
Rogers, who died nine years ago at age 74, appeared for decades on US television as host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – as kind and as gentle a territory as ever existed in the world of American children’s entertainment. An ordained minister, Rogers began each show by singing his theme – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – as he walked into his house, hung up his coat and changed into a sweater and sneakers.
I never met Rogers but thanks to an unlikely intermediary, I learnt that the man and the television character had much in common. My source was a guy called Bernie. I got to know him in the 1980s while I working wire-service night shifts in Washington and he was waiting tables at a vegetarian restaurant that offered value for money at a time when I needed it.
Bernie – I’m not sure if he told me his last name – cut quite a counter-cultural figure in those days. Standing more than six feet tall, with black hair reaching nearly to his waist, pale skin, and features angular enough to etch glass, he looked like a member of the Wayne’s World cast – if Wayne’s World had been about vampires.
We bonded, at first, because Bernie got a kick out of my enthusiasm for soup; he would greet me as I walked into his restaurant by proclaiming that “the lentil rocks, man!” and would reward me with extra bowls. Our conversations expanded to include Bernie’s struggles as a punk-rock bassist and his encounter with his most famous customer ever: Rogers, who dropped in once as part of group.
1Bernie, who had a very sunny disposition for someone who seemed to have sprung from the dark side of the moon, rated Mister Rogers highly. He was careful to give the great man his space and waited until Rogers had finished his meal to tell him that when he was a boy he watched the show every day after school with his mother.
Rogers’ response, as rendered by Bernie, has stayed with me ever since. “Bernie,” Rogers said, being the kind of person who made sure to learn his waiter’s name, “the next time you talk to your mother I want you to tell her that she should be very proud of you” – which was beautiful, really, because even if you liked Bernie, and I did (and not only for the soup), you had to admit he was bit of a mess.
The political relevance of Rogers’ pat on the back for my friend Bernie occurred to me recently as I read about Mr Obama’s celebrated phone call a few days ago to Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University in Washington.
As many of you know, Ms Fluke has been the focus of a national furore since she appeared before a congressional committee to support an Obama administration plan requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception. Rush Limbaugh, a radio talk-show host with a big following on the political right, responded by calling Ms Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” who “wants to be paid to have sex” by US taxpayers. He suggested it would only be fair for Ms Fluke and other “femi-nazis” to post online videos of themselves having sex so that everyone could watch.
Mr Obama phoned Ms Fluke to console her – and what struck me was how much he sounded like the Rogers of Bernie’s restaurant. Mr Obama didn’t join the political battle directly; he spoke to Ms Fluke in his capacity as an older person (despite being a decade younger than Mr Limbaugh, for what it’s worth).
“He said to tell my parents that they should be proud,” Ms Fluke said, “and that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me.”
Mr Obama painted his intervention as essentially paternal. He explained that he called Ms Fluke because he thought of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and wanted “them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way” without being “attacked or called horrible names because they are being good citizens”.
But there’s no denying the underlying politics here, and I think that whether you support the president or not, it’s worth noting that he has managed in this instance to position himself as the caring and concerned adult on the scene. He’s calm and everyone else is frantic. He’s conciliatory and everyone else is complaining. He’s Mister Obama and we’re all living in his neighbourhood.
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