Rudin: Shirley Temple Black embodied politics of her time

Shirley Temple Black, then the U.S. Ambassador to

Shirley Temple Black, then the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, right, leads then-Secretary of State James Baker and wife Susan from the plane at Prague Airport, in Prague. (Credit: AP, 1990)

Of course, we can never really lose Shirley Temple. She'll always be the adorable, precocious little girl who enthralled us with her dimples, her acting and her singing.

But we celebrate her for being more than the biggest child star Hollywood ever produced. Shirley Temple melded celebrity and politics in a way few of her successors have matched. Through much of her 85 years, until her passing Monday night, she embodied the tenor and politics of the time. Not every connection benefited her or her career. But she stayed true to her convictions and played a big role in the evolving politics of the 20th century.

She began her film career at age 3, and soon everyone wanted a piece of her -- for better or worse. That included many in the world of politics. In 1934, when writer Upton Sinclair tried to advance his socialist policies by running for governor of California, Hollywood studios pulled out the big guns to defeat him. Among those they trotted out was Shirley Temple, all of 5 years old, who said she would be "sticking with the boss" -- incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Merriam.


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Fast forward to 1938. During hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a witness said Communists were using celebrities to advance their cause, and that Shirley Temple's name had come up at a Communist front meeting. The headlines suggested the committee was calling the 10-year old a Communist dupe, which resulted in widespread ridicule of the HUAC. Ultimately, the rising threat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis pushed Communist-baiting to the sidelines. It wouldn't reappear until after World War II, when it returned with a vengeance.

It's fair to say Shirley Temple was probably not a Republican at age 5 and certainly not a Communist at 10. But it was clear that political partisans -- then as now -- were attracted to someone of her star quality. And she was drawn to the world of politics herself.

In 1950, she married Charles Black, a wealthy businessman active in Republican politics. That led to a new career of assuming a strong conservative identity and advancing the GOP, which resonated with a country tired of two decades of Democrats in the White House. Shirley Temple Black worked assiduously for the GOP, raising money both nationally and in her native California.

She resisted entreaties to run for office -- until 1967. Rep. J. Arthur Younger, a Republican from a district just south of San Francisco, died and she entered the race to succeed him. That Shirley Temple could serve in Congress was not far-fetched in a state like California, where former actor Ronald Reagan was governor and former song-and-dance man George Murphy was a U.S. senator.

But time finally was passing her by. She was a Vietnam War hawk in a state quickly souring on the conflict. And her celebrity status made it difficult to morph from curiosity to serious candidate. She gave vague speeches about the importance of having women in Congress, and bands at her rallies played the "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Meanwhile, unknown law professor Paul McCloskey talked in detail about the horrors of the war. He won comfortably.

She went on to serve successfully as a member of the U.S. delegation at the United Nations and as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

She never shied away from her identity or her politics. Through all the changes that rocked the country during her years in the spotlight, Shirley Temple Black remained a stalwart Republican to the end.

And she will forever be America's Sweetheart. To Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ken Rudin spent three decades covering politics and elections for ABC News (1983-91) and NPR (1991-2013).  He recently started a weekly radio show/podcast ("The Political Junkie") and a website, kenrudinpolitics.com.  He lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be found at Twitter @kenrudin and on Facebook.  He also collects campaign buttons, a collection that is approaching 70,000 items.  

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