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Opinion

February 16, 2014

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

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Timing brought her to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1968, in the midst of the Prague Spring and the crackdown on reformers. And a combination of actor’s good luck and timing brought her back for the Prague Spring’s reversal in 1989.

The most visible part of diplomacy consists of public meetings or events, speeches given, parties thrown. But most of the work takes place away from the public eye. Public and private diplomacy require the ability to perform for and understand an audience, and she was skilled at both. When it came to the new Czechoslovak leadership, she knew these people and what motivated them, understood their anti-establishment tendencies, and gained their respect not merely because of her recognized early film work but also because her ability to take the stage and perform whatever diplomatic duties were necessary.

Because of her GOP star power and her husband Charlie’s own network, she was able to attract a never-ending stream of American officials and business people to Prague. She enticed them to come and witness the unfolding story of the Velvet Revolution. Peaceful democratic change was as strong a draw as the incomparable fairytale beauty of the Prague castle, and the visits got Czechoslovakia added attention in the halls of Congress.

The first six months after the revolution felt like a nationwide party. And the embassy grounds were no exception. Journalists were often invited to events at the ambassador’s residence and whenever congressional delegations came through town, she opened up the Petschek Palace doors, located on recently renamed Ronald Reagan Street.

At my first reception, I asked a white-jacketed staff member in Czech (and loosely translated into English) “Is Shirley Temple available?” He looked over toward the ambassador and nodded. I then said, “Please procure me Shirley Temple” at which point the bartender nearly dropped the glass he was holding. He had never heard of the drink.

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