And yet from that email—from that everything—one can hazard a guess about Fred’s answers to the questions shouted at Pam Bondi in Tampa. It’s obvious that he would have been saddened by our country’s continued refusal to provide health care to all its citizens. It’s obvious that he would have been devastated by the cruelties committed in our name at the border, and shaken by our lack of mercy in all things, particularly our policies toward helpless children. But even more obvious is what his position would have been regarding the civility debate. Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.
Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear. What he would have thought of Pam Bondi’s politics is one thing; what he would have thought of Pam Bondi is quite another, because he prayed for the strength to think the same way about everyone. She is special; there has never been anyone exactly like her, and there never will be anyone exactly like her ever again; God loves her exactly as she is. He repeated this over and over, and that his name was invoked as a cudgel by activists who probably shed tears over the documentary has haunted me since I first saw the video from Tampa. It isn’t that he is revered but not followed so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.