Aboard the Good Ship Lollipop: Shirley Temple Meets the Political Press

By Jack Limpert

Victor Gold was a longtime writer for The Washingtonian, sometimes doing pieces on former President George H. W. Bush, for whom he wrote speeches and was close to, but often on what a strange and wonderful place the nation’s capital can be. Two of my favorites were “If the Mafia Ran Washington” and “How Political Operators Con the Press.” He now lives in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., and writes for his blog, The Wayward Lemming.

Earlier today he put up a post about helping Shirley Temple Black, who died earlier this week, run for Congress. I asked Vic how the political press reacted to the nation’s most famous child star running for office. Here’s his reply:

I was called to help on the Shirley Temple Black campaign after establishing a reputation as a good Republican press secretary on the Goldwater campaign. The biggest media problem was that the national press, led by Time magazine, blew her up as a movie celebrity candidate, Little Miss Marker trying to follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps (he’d been elected governor a year earlier).  It was hard to get people to take her seriously as a congressional candidate through that filter—constant photos of her dancing with Bill Robinson, TV clips of her childhood movies.

“Two years later I went on to work for Vice President Spiro Agnew as press secretary , then eight years after that to write speeches for George H. W. Bush.”

Here’s his post about trying to help Shirley Temple come to Washington.

Aboard the Good Ship Lollipop

By Victor Gold

The candidate’s husband met me at the San Francisco airport that August day in 1967 with what he considered good news: According to the latest poll we were riding high, with a 2-to-1 advantage over our nearest opponent in the special election to fill a congressional seat.

So went my first morning as campaign advisor to Shirley Temple Black, explaining to her husband, Charles, on the drive from the airport that the poll he thought was good was in fact awful. True, we had a 2-to-1 advantage over Pete McCloskey, but it was 12 to 6 percent, with no fewer than eight of 10 voters undecided. That wasn’t bad in itself, but brought on heartburn when the numbers also told us that our candidate had an astounding 98 percent recognition factor among registered votes in San Mateo County.

In short, voters knew her, even liked her (the favorable ratio was just as good), but 80 percent couldn’t see her as their representative in Congress. Though now a mother with two growing girls, people still saw her as adorable little Shirley, dancing with Bill Robinson aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

It would not, I’d learn in the weeks ahead, be an impression easy to overcome. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the myth has grown that being an actor gives a candidate a decided edge in campaigning for office. Not so if the candidate, like Shirley Temple Black, is reluctant to play the role set out by professional political handlers (like me).

Shirley had her own ideas about the way she wanted to run for office and that was that. No superficial sound bites, no hedging on the issues, no campaign rallies between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. because the most important thing in her day was to be with her children at dinnertime (remembering, she told me, her own young days when work at the studio came before family gatherings).

Who could argue with that? I’d worked with Barry Goldwater three years before and knew the style: She might win the race, she might lose it, but in either case she was going to do it her own way. What beat us, however, wasn’t so much her style as the Vietnam War. Pete McCloskey, a Vietnam veteran, was against it and had the best of both political worlds on the most important issue of the day.

My candidate that summer and fall of 1967 went on, as we know, to make her contribution as an ambassador overseas, her good cheer and earnest approach to the job serving her and her country well. But had she been elected to Congress, I’m sure, the skipper of the Good Ship Lollipop would have made an outstanding Member – and who knows where it might have gone from there?

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