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Opinion

February 16, 2014

Column: Good Ship USA — a remembrance of Shirley Temple Black

I’m a Shirley Temple fan. Not a big fan of her movies; they seemed more suited for my sister. I’m fan of her diplomacy in Czechoslovakia.

I was a Newsweek reporter living in Prague between the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” and 1991, when I saw up close how Ambassador Shirley Temple Black worked it. That’s how I became a fan. (Disclosure: I like ambassadors; my wife was U.S. ambassador to Hungary 2010-13.)

America has had many notable diplomats dealing with Czechoslovakia, or the more modern Czech Republic, a country split from Slovakia in 1993 following a “Velvet Divorce.” But Shirley Temple Black’s watch came at a seminal moment in modern Czechoslovak history, and she was, perhaps unexpectedly, the right person at the right time.

Her personal and informal style worked well with the new government, made up of formerly imprisoned, hard-laboring and human rights Charta 77-signing artists, musicians, actors and a playwright president named Vaclav Havel. Many of those new Czechoslovak political leaders admired President Ronald Reagan, an actor-politician like themselves who expressed in the clearest terms — and to the whole world — their deepest desire for freedom

In Shirley Temple Black, the Czechoslovaks had a new diplomat-artist colleague who shared Reagan’s sentiments and temperament.

During early street protests in Prague in 1989, she spoke out for more democratic freedom and in thinly veiled language against the Husak government, to which she was credentialed. And as the Berlin Wall fell and the distinct scent of revolution filled the Eastern European air, people filled central Wenceslas Square and jangled their keys in protest. Shaking those keys meant that they wanted to lock out the communists and open the door to democracy. Suddenly she became the U.S. ambassador to a reborn and dramatically transitioning state.

Thankfully, she knew something about drama. And timing.

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