May 6, 2015

Mister Rogers and the RFK assassination: June 7, 1968

Here, I think, is a fairly remarkable bit of footage.  It comes from a special Mister Rogers' Neighborhood broadcast on June 7, 1968 on NET, in which Fred Rogers talks about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and, by extension, the chaos now enveloping the United States.

You'll notice a couple of things straight away: first, Mister Rogers appears not in his trademark cardigan, but in his suit.  Second, the focus of his comments is aimed at parents, as he shares his concern about the growing depiction of violence on television and offers suggestions on how to deal with the anxiety children might be experiencing.

Fred Rogers would do this again, most memorably after the 9/11 attacks, but this may well have been the first time any children's show tackled such a subject as directly as it was here.  If you're fortunate enough to go to the Paley Center in New York you can see the entire program, which includes this extraordinary moment, described by the Paley Center as "tree trunk resident Lady Elaine Fairchild hectors a reluctant X the Owl into taking the part of assassin Sirhan Sirhan in a ghoulish game of make-believe."  More specifically, as detailed at this Mister Rogers website,

We go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (no trolley, we just go straight there). X the Owl is in his tree and Lady Elaine is in Henrietta's house. Lady Elaine excitedly talks about watching the news and seeing "that man get shot by that other man at least six times!" X somberly says that seeing it once was enough for him. Lady Elaine wants to pretend she's shooting X and that X shoots her, and X gets upset and says he doesn't want to play about that. Lady Aberlin walks up to them and X talks about how nervous it makes him to play about things like that. Lady Aberlin says that thinking about a thing, or talking about it, or playing about it doesn't make it happen. She explains, "That man didn't shoot the other man just by thinking about it. He actually had to pick up his gun and do it." X and Lady Elaine wonder why it happened and Lady Aberlin says "That man shot the other man because he must have been very, very angry about something." But she emphasizes that he still had to do it. X thinks about times that he wished for things because he was angry, but they didn't come true, and Lady Aberlin assures him that the wishes he makes won't hurt anybody. X says he used to wish he could fly when he was little, but that wish did come true. He then realizes it came true because he made it happen. X feels better and Lady Elaine suggests that everyone in the neighborhood should have a picnic because it might make them feel better. Lady Aberlin promises to be there.

I wish that had been included in the clip we have; it would have been something to see.

I had just turned eight when RFK was assassinated; I should remember it more than I do.  I recall the endless train trip of Saturday, my grandfather coming up periodically from his workshop in the basement asking "is that still on?", but I don't have a specific memory of being traumatized or otherwise disoriented.  Perhaps it was because my mother was level-headed in things like this; she'd held me on her lap while Robert's brother John announced the quarantine of Cuba during the Missile Crisis and wondered to herself if this was it, so an assassination, while grim, was perhaps not quite as world-ending.  Plus, she was a partisan Republican, and wouldn't have been as likely to get caught up in Bobby-maina in the first place.  Or it could be that I was old enough and mature enough to understand what was going on.

Nevertheless, for small children it might have been the first time they'd seen their parents frightened or crying, having that rock of assurance appear to crumble before their eyes.  They might be alarmed themselves by the images on television, by the violence and despair that was sweeping the country in the last couple of months (Mister Rogers himself refers to this as a "disturbing time in our nation's history"), and the words of this gentle man would have been quite reassuring to parents struggling with how to explain things to them.*

*Does anyone know how Captain Kangaroo addressed the subject?  He would have had a wider audience in 1968, and I'm quite sure he would have said something.  For example, I've read that on Thanksgiving Day 1963, the Captain read what would have been JFK's Thanksgiving speech to the nation.  Obviously, he would have tackled the death of RFK as well. 

"What does assassination mean?"  Surely those are words that should never have to be spoken on a children's show, just as parents shouldn't have to explain to their children why someone would fly an airplane into a building on purpose.  It is, however, the world we live in, and it's at times like these that we're grateful for people like Fred Rogers, people who can help explain these difficult things to children - and to us as well. TV  


  1. My, but it's a bit dusty in my office this afternoon. I feel so bad for Daniel. Thanks for finding and posting this.

    (You and I are almost precisely the same age. I remember coming out for breakfast on the morning after RFK was shot and hearing about it on the news, but I have no memory of the funeral train or anything else about it. It was the first week after school got out--conceivably the day after--and my mind was elsewhere.)

  2. A truly awful experience at age 7. From the images of RFK laying on the floor to screaming and crying by grown men in suits and that strange phrase "Is there a doctor in the house," I was left terrified. I had trouble sleeping for days and when I did drift off imaged from the tv coverage would play thru my head. I got so generally scared that I started refusing to walk our dog in the evening, prompting my parents to give the dog away. For me at least, exposure to this coverage, with no effort by my parents to explain things, left me very frightened at the time.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!