11 February 2014

Shirley Temple and Hollywood Republicanism

The late Shirley Temple Black made her last stab at stardom in 1965, at age 37, when she filmed a pilot for a sitcom called Go Fight City Hall. When no one picked up the show, Temple turned her attention to politics. Her obituaries remind us that she followed two of her erstwhile co-stars into the political arena. George Murphy, who danced with the ten year old Temple in 1938's Little Miss Broadway, was elected to the U.S. Senate by California voters in 1964, bucking that year's Democratic trend. More significantly, her romantic partner in 1947's That Hagen Girl, Ronald Reagan, was elected Governor of California in 1966. Temple made her attempt in 1967, running for Congress as a Republican in a special election. She lost to a fellow Republican in what was interpreted as a repudiation by her district of her hawkish foreign policy. She proved more effective as a campaign worker than a campaigner. President Nixon rewarded Temple for her work on his behalf in 1968 by putting her on a diplomatic career track. He made her Ambassador to Ghana in 1972. While that may have seemed a backwater, and the appointment may have seemed the typical patronage reward for a prominent supporter, Temple apparently proved a quick study at diplomacy, to the extent that President Ford made her Chief of Protocol, responsible for training other diplomats. She played her biggest role in real-world history as President George H.W. Bush's Ambassador to Czechoslovakia during that country's 1989 "Velvet Revolution." It was interesting to learn that Temple had also been there in 1968, during the "Prague Spring" of liberalization, and had had to bug out (with other Americans and westerners) when the Russians invaded. She had been active in fundraising for research into multiple sclerosis and was lobbying for Czechoslovakia's entry into an international federation of MS societies. One might wonder whether she had more to do there then than that, and whether her work in 1968 had anything to do with her 1989 appointment by Bush the Elder. But by speculating I digress. Temple, of course, was perhaps the greatest of all child stars, the number-one box office attraction from 1935 through 1937, although she failed to maintain her position as she matured. Many of today's obituaries stress her necessarily largely unconscious role in rebuilding national morale during the Depression. She projected an optimism the nation seemed to need, and when writers today mentioned "optimism" I thought of Reagan and how his optimism set him and his political movement apart from traditional, pessimistic conservatism. I don't know much about George Murphy and his views except that he was a conservative Republican like Reagan and Temple -- and like Reagan, a past president of the Screen Actors Guild. These associations left me wondering whether the paradoxical conservative optimism now identified with Reagan was not so much his as Hollywood's contribution to American political thought: a necessary, obligatory optimism -- optimism as a corporate imperative -- that can be traced back to Shirley Temple's musical comedies, if not earlier. I don't mean that her childhood pictures promoted conservatism -- her optimism actually complemented the New Deal -- but that they may have encouraged the belief that optimism could overcome all obstacles. I can only speculate because I never watched her movies when they ran on TV. I was a boy, so Shirley Temple was the last thing I wanted to see. Millions did watch those movies, however -- Temple was probably a bigger star at her peak than anyone is today -- and her historic popularity has to have had some sort of impact. Few watch her movies now, but their original impact still resonates today.

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