By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – The varied careers of Shirley Temple Black, a child star who went into politics, spans a time when a succession of Republican presidents occupied the White House and moderation was a touchstone for the party, instead of a rejected ideology.
President Nixon, a fellow Californian, made Black a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly in 1969. President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana, and then Chief of Protocol in his administration. She helped plan Jimmy Carter’s inauguration after Ford’s defeat.
There was some grumbling about her first ambassadorial appointment in 1974, but her charm and talent quickly silenced the critics. President George H.W. Bush made her ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, a critical post as the Soviet Union was breaking up, and the Cold War was coming to an end.
Black, who died this week at age 85, will be remembered first and foremost as the preeminent star of the 1930’s, far more popular even than Clark Gable, who rated a distant second in surveys at the time. A child prodigy with extraordinary musical ability and a sunny personality, Americans received her as a welcome tonic during the Depression years.
She stopped acting in her early twenties, recognizing that the country had moved on, and sought to fashion a second career in politics. In 1967, she entered the Republican primary for a congressional seat just outside San Francisco, where “On the Good Ship Lollipop” heralded her campaign appearances. Maybe voters couldn’t yet see her as a credible politician, but that isn’t what defeated her.
The anti-war movement was raging, and Black backed the Vietnam War. She lost the primary to liberal Republican Pete McCloskey. That could have sidelined her, but the appointment by Nixon to the U.N. put her on a public service track that she, the country, and the Republican Party, could point to with pride.
She also stood up for women in her own way, publicly revealing in 1972 that she had breast cancer, and had undergone a mastectomy. This was a time when few celebrities were open about such illnesses. It would be another two years before First Lady Betty Ford made history by going public with her breast cancer.
Black comes out of the same tradition in Republican politics that the Fords represented so ably, a moderation that a sizeable segment of the GOP today ridicules. She was dedicated to public service in its various forms whether it was raising money and awareness about multiple sclerosis, a disease that afflicted her brother, or channeled through the government posts that three presidents entrusted her with.
As ambassador to Czechoslovakia, she discovered that her old movies were popular in the crumbling Soviet empire, that they had gotten past state censors and fostered decades-old Shirley Temple fan clubs. She patiently signed autographs and enjoyed the acclaim, but refused to live in the past from the time she walked away from Hollywood and set her sights on a different kind of public career.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Black is what a stable life she led after enduring what today might qualify as child abuse. In her autobiography, “Child Star,” she recalled being locked in a windowless sound box when she misbehaved as a member of the “Baby Burlesks.” As recounted in The New York Times, her husband of 55 years, Charles Black, told a reporter in 1988 that his wife was so grounded “through thick and thin, traumatic situations, exultant situations. . . . she would be catastrophic for the psychiatric profession. You can wake her up in the middle of the night and she has the same personality everybody knows. What everybody has seen for 60 years is the bedrock.” It’s the kind of bedrock that’s all too rare today, elevating politics into the nobler calling of public service.
(Eleanor Clift interviewed Shirley Temple Black in the 1980s)
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