The remembrances of Shirley Temple Black, who died at the age of 85 Monday, will understandably focus more on her career as an actress during the 1930s, but as she liked to point out, she actually spent more years in her unlikely second career as a diplomat than she did in show business. In the light of recent controversies over the qualifications of American ambassadors, it’s interesting to consider Temple’s role in one of the most pivotal political moments of the end of the Cold War.
Black said she got her start as a diplomat after an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1967 after Henry Kissinger heard her discussing Namibia at a party and was "surprised that I even knew the word." Richard Nixon appointed her to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in 1969, where she focused on refugees and environmental issues.
According to the New York Times, “When she was appointed ambassador to Ghana in 1974, some career diplomats were outraged, but State Department officials later conceded that her performance was outstanding.”
“I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here," Black said after arriving in Ghana. "My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies."
After a stint as the White House chief of protocol for Gerald Ford and running a training program for ambassadors, George H.W. Bush appointed her as ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989. As the Times wrote at the time, “If Prague were Rome or Paris, it would be easy to see George Bush's decision to ask her to be Ambassador to Czechoslovakia as simply a political reward for long, loyal service to the conservative Republican cause.” But Prague in 1989, with signs already in place that the communist system was collapsing and the Velvet Revolution just weeks away, wasn’t exactly a vacation posting.
Black seemed to have an unlikely ability to be present for key moments in Czech history. She had been in the country in 1968 for a multiple sclerosis conference as Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring. She was ambassador throughout the fall of the communist government, and ended her tenure just as the country was splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.
By all accounts, she acquitted herself well in the role, charming final Communist leader Gustáv Husák, who had been a fan of “Shirleyka’s" old films, but also maintained contacts with leading dissidents including Václav Havel, whom she accompanied on his first trip to the United States in 1990. (According to journalist Jack Anderson, she insisted that the license plate on her car feature her initials, just to annoy the Czech government. “STB” was the acronym for the Czech secret police.)
According to Black, after the revolution, her work shifted more to economic matters, though she did speak out against proposed laws barring ex-communists from government positions, comparing them to the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.
Black may not have done anything exceedingly memorable or heroic during her tenure, but by all accounts she represented U.S. interests effectively during an extremely sensitive geopolitical moment, despite being a party loyalist and former movie star rather than an area expert or career foreign service officer.
The current backlash against political appointees and fundraisers is understandable—prospective ambassadors should at the very least know the parties in power of the countries where they’re headed in order to avoid public humiliation—but Black’s experience is a reminder that most of the time, even in the tensest moments, political acumen and social skills are more important.
P.S. It doesn't really fit into this post, but one of my favorite stories of Black's tenure in Czechoslovakia is the time in 1990 that she just happened to be at the Prague airport at the same time that Frank Zappa—Havel's favorite rock star and an icon of freedom for the Czech opposition—was arriving for his first visit to the country, met by a crowd of adoring fans. A TV crew there to meet Zappa stopped to ask the ambassador for her opinion on the arriving dignitary.
In his book, A Tale of Two Utopias, writer Paul Berman recounts what happened next:
From an American point of view, that was a bizarre, at any rate a foreign, moment in the Eastern Bloc Revolution. No right-minded American would dream of asking Shirley Temple about Frank Zappa. Americans know that the United States is a divided country, at war with itself since the mid-1960s or earlier, splintered into culture and counterculture, right and left. Or who can say what the divisions are, except that they persist, like a guerilla war that has festered in the jungle unto the second or third generation? The charming Temple, beloved for “The Good Ship Lollipop” and other entertainments, is not from the same America as the pirate-bearded performer of those classics from 1967 and ’68, “Lumpy Gravy” and “We’re Only in It for the Money.” Not to mention “Alien Orifice” and “Dicky’s Such an Asshole!” No way on earth was Shirley, the sweetheart of the GOP, going to have anything to say about Frank, the Mother of Invention. The TV crew, however, did not consist of right-minded Americans. The crew was in the grip of a delusion. They seemed to think that Ambassador Black was going to say, “We in the United States are proud of our contributions to music and blah blah blah… On the occaision of the arrival of such a distinguished…, allow me to express…”
As was endless recounted to me by every Czech I met in those revolutionary, frightening weeks, Mrs. Black looked horrified, even humiliated. Heads turned away from the camera. Face buried itself in hands. Televised mortification! Mr. Zappa’s music loomed like a distant sun that had never once cast a beam of Mrs. Black’s lonely shore. Face reemerged from hands. The ambassador from the United States volunteered that she did know something about Mr. Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit. Czechoslovakia was aghast. People had no way to account for the United States ambassador’s boorish airport behavior, except to mark her down as a cultural ignoramus who lacked the aplomb to boast to all of Central Europe about one of America’s finest sons, the brilliant Zappa, a world figure in the field of popular music.
Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.