Obama administration ambassadorial candidates have made headlines in recent days for embarrassing performances at their Senate confirmation hearings, where they made blunders that exposed a lack of basic knowledge about the countries where they would be posted.
Critics seized on the moment to highlight the problem of pay-for-post ambassador candidates - the longstanding practice of awarding big campaign donors plum diplomatic postings, especially in Europe. The bigger issue was how veteran foreign service officers are sometimes overlooked for such postings in favor of seemingly less qualified donors or U.S. celebrities.
Shirley Temple Black, the actor-turned-diplomat who died late Monday at age 85, faced some of the same skepticism in her transition but ended up with a respected diplomatic record, according to reports that praise her performance as a U.S. envoy.
A Republican who lost a congressional bid, Temple Black served the Nixon administration as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, the Ford administration as ambassador to Ghana and as chief of protocol, then the Reagan administration as a State Department trainer, and eventually the first Bush administration as ambassador to Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain fell.
The AP today published this overview of Temple Black's diplomatic career:
NEW YORK (AP) — Shirley Temple got her first ambassador appointment after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger heard her discussing Namibia at a party and, in her words, was "surprised that I even knew the word." She would have to prove herself over and over during a time when few women got such posts, let along pretty former actresses. But she earned the respect of colleagues and world leaders.
The same AP report included a 1969 quote from a Saudi diplomat who gushed that she was "a fresh breeze," and this account of her campaign to win hearts and minds in West Africa:
The Associated Press reported from Accra, Ghana, in 1975 that the new ambassador discussed the economy in great detail and "startled the embassy pros" by turning up at her desk in a Ghanaian outfit of printed cotton head scarf and gown. Temple also made a point of saying "welcome" and "thank you" in local languages and "delighted the ladies of the Market Women's Association ... embracing them as sister working girls."
The Washington Post put together a photo gallery with plenty of snapshots from Temple Black's diplomatic career: waving to journalists as she arrives at a checkpoint on the border of West Germany and Czechoslovakia, watching a tribal dance in Ghana at a ceremony where she was named an honorary deputy chief, sharing a laugh with former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang at a State Department luncheon, and posing with Czech President Vaclav Havel as they viewed the original draft of the Czechoslovakia Declaration of Independence.
As a Reuters obituary notes:
As actress Shirley Temple, she was precocious, bouncy and adorable with a head of curly hair, tap-dancing through songs like "On The Good Ship Lollipop." As Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, she was soft-spoken and earnest in postings in Czechoslovakia and Ghana, out to disprove concerns that her previous career made her a diplomatic lightweight. "I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here," Black said after her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974. "My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies."