Starlets in Politics

Ashley Judd follows a long line of female actresses turned politicians.

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Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS

Actress Ashley Judd reads off the Tennessee vote totals during the roll call vote for the Democratic presidential nomination during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 5, 2012.

If Ashley Judd makes a run for the U.S. Senate against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), she will join a small but illustrious group of women who started their careers in show business and then took a detour into politics. The star of “Ruby in Paradise” and “Double Jeopardy,” Judd worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and has been involved in humanitarian efforts to prevent AIDS and to stop sexual violence in the Congo.  Although she still has not announced her intentions, she has already come under attack in ads by Karl Rove’s PAC American Crossroads and her potential opponent, Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Judging from campaigns of her fellow performers turned pols, the worst is yet to come.  Here is a short history of those who came before her.

Helen Gahagan Douglas

TIME&Life Pictures / Getty Images

Helen Gahagan Douglas

The first female candidate to make the switch from public adulation to public service was Helen Gahagan Douglas, a stage and screen actress, opera singer and the wife of actor Melvyn Douglas.  The liberal Democrat who supported world disarmament and civil rights served in the U.S. Congress as the representative of the 14th district of California from 1945-1951. According to Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, she had a love affair with Johnson in the 1940’s, unknown to the public, but well known in political circles.

She is perhaps best remembered as Richard Nixon’s opponent in one of the dirtiest campaigns in modern history, the 1950 California Senate race. Nixon painted her as a Communist sympathizer who was “pink down to her underwear.”  At political events, the Nixon campaign began distributing a pink sheet of paper listing left-leaning policies allegedly held by Douglas.  Once the “pink sheet” spread, Douglas was branded “The Pink Lady.”  But Douglas, who lost the race, tagged Nixon with the nickname that would haunt him throughout his life,  “Tricky Dick.”

Clare Boothe Luce had a brief acting career and later was married to the founder and co-creator of TIME and Time Inc.  She served in the House as a Republican representing Fairfield County, Connecticut from 1943-47.   In Congress, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment and higher wartime taxes on the wealthy, and introduced a bill that would have created a bureau in the Dept. of Labor to guarantee equal pay to women and minorities.  She also was no fan of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, calling him “the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it.” FDR in turn called Luce, “a sharp-tongued glamor girl of forty.”

Rep. Charlotte Reid

Rep. Charlotte Reid

Charlotte Reid gained fame after a three-year stint as singer Annette King on an early NBC TV show, “The Breakfast Club.” A Republican, Reid represented Illinois from 1963-1973 after her husband died suddenly after an arduous primary battle, but before the general election. As a fiscal conservative, she was against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, but supported the war in Vietnam and the military policies of Richard Nixon. In 1965 she paid her own way to Vietnam and became one of the first members of Congress to visit U.S. military bases in South Vietnam.

Reid saw a lot in her five terms.  In her first race, she woke up to sexist headlines in the Chicago Tribune like,  “Powder-Puff Politics Pack Punch in 15th,” and “With Bonnet in Ring, Mrs. Reid Runs Hard.”  She once showed up for a vote wearing a pants suit –possibly the first worn on the House floor– which prompted then-Minority Leader Gerald Ford to say, “Well, what’s this?”

Shirley Temple Black, the beloved movie star moppet who cheered up the nation during the Depression, took the plunge in 1967 as a conservative Republican promising a “moral renaissance” against “the personal hypocrisy, the lack of integrity, (and) the apathy.”  She ran unsuccessfully as a Vietnam hawk, losing to anti-war candidate Pete McCloskey. It was a tough campaign with constant references to her childhood movie persona and lack of political experience-one of her potential opponents, a Democrat candidate and a PT-boat skipper, Roy Archibald, remarked, “The campaign may shape up as PT-453 vs. the Good Ship Lollipop.” At one press conference Black had to tell reporters, “Little Shirley Temple is not running.”

Shirley Temple Black and George W. Bush

Shirley Temple Black with former President George W. Bush

But her revenge was sweet.  She was appointed by Richard Nixon to be the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, and later served as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.  She was the first female Chief of Protocol in history after Gerald Ford appointed her, and she organized the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

Nancy Kulp, best known as Miss Jane Hathaway on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular sitcom that lasted for nine seasons, served in the Navy during WWII, had a brief career as a newspaper writer, and worked in a studio publicity department until director George Cukor talked her into working in front of the camera. She was a ubiquitous presence on TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Kulp started working inPennsylvania politics only a few years before launching her own bid for Congress as a Democrat in 1984, the year that saw President Reagan re-elected in a landslide.  Her “Beverly Hillbillies” co-star Buddy Ebsen endorsed her opponent and did an ad on his behalf, which created a rift between the co-stars.  Her opponent won with 67% of the vote.

Judd already has a few challenges.  She currently resides in Tennessee and once proclaimed, “it just clicked, Tennessee is home.”  Her politically active grandmother calls her a “Hollywood liberal,” and has publicly praised McConnell.  Judd once said of childbirth, “it’s unconscionable to breed, with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries,” and she has been outspoken about mountain top removal mining, which has strong support in Kentucky.  Still McConnell was named the most unpopular Senator in December and one should never underestimate the true grit of a Judd. If she enters the race, Judd will find what Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote of actresses-“life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes”- to be also true of female politicians.