Remembering a friend: Ronald Reagan liked ice cream, golf and everyone he met

Editor’s note: In 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall, the world’s most notorious symbol of communist oppression, and challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In November 1989, less than a year after Reagan completed his second term and retired to California, the wall’s destruction was underway and Reagan’s hope was fulfilled as the Soviet empire crumbled and liberated East Germans streamed into the West. A quarter century later, as the world recalls those historic events and U.S. politicians of every stripe lay claim to Reagan’s legacy, retired Ford Motor executive Chase Morsey offers this fond remembrance of his longtime friendship with the 40th president of the United States. A friend of many Texans – including some of Fort Worth’s most notable leaders – and author of “The Man Who Saved the V-8: The Untold Stories of Some of the Most Important Product Decisions in the History of Ford Motor Company,” Morsey saw a side of Reagan that the public rarely did and the two men forged a close relationship over two of Reagan’s favorite diversions – ice cream and golf. This is their story.

By Chase Morsey Jr.

These days, it seems that everyone to the right of the Democratic Party is trying to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. That is understandable. Though he was at times under appreciated in life, Reagan is now viewed by many Americans as one of our greatest modern presidents. But there is one big problem with this: Most of these people act nothing like the Ronald Reagan I knew. The Reagan I knew – the Reagan I played golf with every week for many years – was one of the nicest, kindest and least angry men I’ve ever met. There was not a drop of vitriol or venom in him. He approached politics, and everything else in life, with a civility that I fear has gone extinct in Washington today. It is true that Reagan was a man of deeply held convictions. It is true that he was an unwavering conservative. And it is certainly true that he was absolutely unyielding when it came to checking the advance of his only real enemy, which was communism. But like every great leader back to Bismarck, Reagan knew that politics was the art of the possible. A Republican who had once been a Democrat, he was always ready, willing and able to sit down with his Democratic opponents and find a way to accomplish those things he felt were truly important.

Sundaes with Ronnie Ronald Reagan and I had been introduced shortly after I moved to Los Angeles in 1977. I was never part of the so-called “Kitchen Cabinet,” which included men such as Holmes Tuttle, Earle Jorgensen, William French Smith, Bill Wilson, Charles Wick and Alfred Bloomingdale. However, they and their wives overlapped with my wife Beverly’s circle of friends. She was close with Nancy, too. So, I often saw the former California governor at dinner parties. I voted for him when he ran for president, but was not a major contributor to his campaign. Politics was something I tried to avoid. He was very friendly, easy to talk to. I was always impressed by his lack of pretension. But it wasn’t until a dinner party at Betsy Bloomingdale’s home that I ever really bonded with the man. We became friends over a couple of hot fudge sundaes. The Bloomingdales lived near us in Holmby Hills, a Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, and Betsy was famous for throwing elaborate dinner parties, to which we were often invited. The Bloomingdales were close to the Reagans and, during one of those dinner parties in the mid-1980s, my wife and I found ourselves seated across the table from the president and first lady. We didn’t talk much during the meal, but as the rest of the guests drifted away after dessert, Reagan and I lingered over our hot fudge sundaes. As I licked my spoon, Reagan got up and came around the table to where I was sitting. “Did you like your dessert?” he asked with a warm smile. “I sure did,” I said, gesturing to my empty bowl. “Hot fudge sundaes are my favorite.” “Would you like another one?” the leader of the free world asked me. “I sure would!”

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With that, Reagan motioned to a Secret Service agent standing in the corner and two more sundaes immediately appeared. Reagan sat down next to me and we both dug in to round two. Reagan confided in me his abiding love for ice cream, which I admitted I shared. As we chatted, I kept thinking about how amazingly thoughtful this small act of cordiality was by the president of the United States. He could have so easily motioned me to come over and join him, but instead took the trouble to get up and come over and sit with me. That experience spoke volumes to me about Reagan’s character. It left me in awe of his lack of pretension and his easygoing charisma. Unlike the many politicians claiming his inheritance today, this was a man with nothing to prove. As I drove home that evening, I found myself thinking about a conversation I’d had with a mutual friend, Chuck Reed, shortly after I’d met Reagan for the first time. Reed, who I played golf with regularly, was a longtime representative from California to the Republican National Committee and a fellow member of the Los Angeles Country Club. When he asked me what I thought of Reagan, I replied that he seemed nice enough, but I also said I had been amazed that Reagan had gotten elected governor so easily, given that the media and so much of California’s political establishment had been strongly in favor of his opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Pat Brown. “Chase, it was easy,” Reed told me. “The people liked him.” Now I understood why. I saw Reagan’s effect on people firsthand later that year. We always attended Walter and Lee Annenberg’s annual New Year’s Eve party in Palm Springs, as did the Reagans. The president’s close friends used to give a dinner party the night before at the Eldorado Country Club. It was in a private room, but we had to walk through the main dining room to get there. That year, as we followed the president and the first lady through the main hall, there was just a tremendous reaction from the diners. As he passed, every single person stood up and began applauding. That wave of enthusiasm swept the room like a tidal surge. Even the Democrats were applauding. I’d never seen such a spontaneous and heartfelt outpouring of support for anyone in my entire life.

The Great Conciliator Reagan returned that appreciation with the same sincerity. People loved him, and he loved them right back – and not just people who thought like him, but all the people. Although Reagan was unwavering in his beliefs, politics was never personal for him. When he disagreed with someone, he would try to understand their position and see if there was something in it that could be altered to change the course of the discussion. Reagan never tried to impose his ideas; he always tried to persuade. If he could not bring the other side around to his way of thinking, he would try to find a path that would lead to some kind of a compromise. Unfortunately, many of the people who claim to be disciples of Ronald Reagan today see compromise as a fate worse than defeat. They would rather throw a wrench in the wheels of government than give anything to their opponents. That was not the way Reagan did business. He believed in communication. While he tried at least as hard as they to implement the policies he felt would benefit America, he was realistic enough to know that there were times when the best way to do that was by giving the other side something they wanted.

The best example of this was, of course, his now legendary relationship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. As Chris Matthews detailed in his recent book, the two men would fight like dogs and cats, but when the day was over, they would often sit down and have a drink together. Ronald Reagan would never vilify his opponents – except the communists. Communism was anathema to everything Reagan believed in and held dear. He despised it because it restricted a person’s ability to achieve their full potential. It suppressed people’s talents and made them live in fear. Reagan was viscerally opposed to that grim way of life. He thought there were better ways to solve the problems of the world – ways that did not crush the spirit of the individual under the boot of the state. Yet, even with the Russians, Reagan was always ready to sit down and talk. He did that with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the world is a better place today as a result of the constructive relationship those two men forged together. After the Reagan Library opened, I was stunned to find myself posing for a picture in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall with Reagan and Gorbachev. That was the most powerful testament to the power of Reagan’s character and moral force that I could imagine – and literally a concrete one at that. Naysayers will say that the Russians knew they were licked but if they were, it was Reagan who licked them. And it was Reagan that showed them a way out. He gave them a way to lose gracefully and rejoin the community of nations. It could have all ended so differently. Hitler knew he was licked, but tried to drag the whole world down in flames with him. The Russians could easily have chosen that same course, but Reagan showed them a better one. Unfortunately, our relations with Russia have soured since then because leaders in both countries have forgotten how to communicate the way Reagan and Gorbachev did. The political discourse in America has soured, too, because politicians would rather vilify their opponents than work with them. Reagan always saw his domestic political adversaries as fellow Americans who happened to hold views different from his own. He respected their right to do so, even when he knew they were wrong. And he was always civil to them. I never heard Reagan say a bad word about anybody. Ever. That just was not part of his soul. We’ve lost that sort of civility today, and I’m afraid the country is far worse off as a result. Beverly and I continued to see the Reagans each year at the Annenbergs’ and we were always invited to Nancy’s birthday party at the “Western White House” – the Reagans’ ranch near Santa Barbara. But we were still surprised to be invited to his private 75th birthday party at the real White House in 1986.

We were not close friends or major donors at this point, but we were great admirers of both Reagan and Nancy, and as time went on our admiration for them grew. So, we were thrilled when we learned that they planned to make Bel-Air their home when Reagan’s second term as president ended in January 1989. Reagan had been a member of the Los Angeles Country Club when he was governor, and there was a proposal to make him an honorary member when he and Nancy returned from Washington. To my utter amazement, it turned into quite a contentious issue. Some of the wives complained that some of Nancy’s friends would not be acceptable to the club. It was just gossipy stuff, and I thought it was inane. I went to the board and told them so. “You guys are crazy,” I told them. “This man is one of the greatest presidents we ever had. He is certainly one of the most popular. He has done so much for this country. And he used to be a member of our club. To not make him an honorary member now would be ridiculous.”

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Patient in golf and in life The board voted to make Reagan an honorary member. That night, one of the board members called me and thanked me for putting the whole issue in proper perspective. Not long after that, Nancy called me. “Would you get Ronnie a golf game?” she asked. “Sure, I’d be happy to play with him,” I said. We had lunch at the club and played nine holes. I asked the president if he would like to play again some time. He said he would. So, we agreed to meet again the following Saturday, and just like that, I had a regular weekly game with Ronald Reagan. I learned a lot more about the man out on the golf course, and what I learned only served to reinforce my belief in his stellar qualities. Golf is the hardest sport to master, and the stress of trying to master it reveals much about a person’s character. I’ve seen friends just completely melt down because they aren’t able to control their swing. They become impossible to be around. They lash out at the people around them. Reagan never did. He had bad shots, but he never let them get to him. He never lost his temper – even when his dementia started to get the better of him. He’d compliment you on your good shots and wouldn’t complain about your bad shots – or his. He treated everybody with the same high level of respect, from the caddies to other members of our group. He was so gracious to people. He liked people and they liked him. He aced every hole as far as I was concerned. Reagan and I would always meet for lunch at the club and play nine holes. We were soon joined by some of his friends and some of mine. Reagan would entertain us with his jokes, and we’d talk about sports. He loved baseball and golf, and followed both closely. We never discussed politics – in the clubhouse or on the golf course. And he never talked about himself or his many accomplishments, great as they were. I don’t ever remember him saying, “I did this” or “I did that” or “Remember when I got that bill passed?” or “Remember when I put my arm around Tip O’Neal.” He was humble. His ego never filled the room, no matter how small the room was. If he had an ego, I never saw any sign of it. That is a rare quality for any man, let alone one who had been as great and powerful as Ronald Reagan. I remember one night when Beverly and I took the Reagans out for dinner at a local restaurant. It opened early to accommodate us. When the menus came around, Reagan looked his over very carefully. Then he looked at me and asked, “What are you having?” I told him. “I’ll have the same thing,” he said.

Many people half as important as Ronald Reagan will make a big production of hailing the waiter and engaging in a long discourse about the merits of various dishes before making a selection, or even insist on ordering something that’s not on the menu. But Reagan was not a complicated man. He liked golf and he liked ice cream, and because we knew how much he did, we always made sure he got some – even after his doctors had proscribed it. I felt we owed it to him. At the club, the Secret Service would sit at a nearby table, and they would follow along behind us in their own cart out on the course. Reagan had a strong personal relationship with many of the agents responsible for protecting him, and he always treated them with great respect. It was the same with everybody, from the greenskeepers and busboys to the famous and near-famous the club counted among its members. Reagan was not an elitist. He never talked down to people. He always placed himself at their level. The more I saw him in action, the more I came to realize how important this had been to his success as a leader. Reagan was able to accomplish so much as president because he laid out a path that the common person could understand. You didn’t have to be a Harvard professor or an expert on constitutional law to understand what he was saying. He did not lecture people; he talked to them. He built a dream for them. He gave them hope.

A treasured gift Gradually, we began to notice a change. Reagan would start a joke and wouldn’t finish it. We suspected that something was going on, and Reagan soon confirmed it when he wrote his famous letter to the American people acknowledging that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Though we had always managed a foursome, one by one the other members of our little group began slipping away. In the end, it was just the two of us out on the course every Saturday afternoon with the Secret Service following behind. He didn’t say much by then, but he still enjoyed the game – even if I had to remind him where the hole was – and I didn’t mind one bit. I always thought of Reagan as he had been. I respected him so much and admired him so much, I was happy to do it. He was my friend whether he was president of the United States or an old man who didn’t know what hole he was on. I knew that getting him out of the house was important for him and for Nancy. The burden of caring for him in those later years must have been enormous. To me, keeping him company was a great honor. Ultimately, Reagan stopped appearing in public. After that, we didn’t have any more golf games. My friendship with Ronald Reagan was genuine and personal. By the time we became close, he couldn’t do anything for me and I certainly couldn’t do anything for him other than play golf with him, which is what we did. On my 80th birthday in 1999, I received a handwritten note from Nancy Reagan and a small box containing a pair of Reagan’s cufflinks:

“Dear Chase, “I had always planned on giving these to you later on, but I decided your 80th birthday was probably a pretty good time. “These were Ronnie’s cufflinks, and I know he’d like you to have them. And I’d like you to have them in appreciation for all the lunches and golf games, which I know were trying – but you were a real friend and hung in there. God surely must have a special place up there for you, as do I. “Love, Nancy.” It was one of the most amazing gifts I’ve ever received, and I still treasure it. I probably saw Reagan in those last years more than anybody but his family. Several people, including Nancy Reagan, have told me our Saturday golf game was something he really looked forward to. In fact, in his book Riding with Reagan, the head of Reagan’s Secret Service detail wrote that the golf outings were the high point of Reagan’s week. During a banquet at the Los Angeles Country Club, former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan said, “Chase Morsey kept Reagan alive for an extra ten years.” That was an exaggeration, but I do like to think that I made what Reagan referred to as his “sunset years” a little brighter. At Reagan’s funeral, Beverly and I were seated in the second row, directly behind Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and afterwards were invited by Nancy to a small, private reception As I listened to the eulogies delivered so eloquently by so many powerful and important figures, I reflected upon the Ronald Reagan I had come to know so well. He was such a humble man. He didn’t see himself as a great leader. Heck, he could have been the city dogcatcher as easily as president of the United States. But that’s what made him so appealing to people. There are tough leaders, and there are demanding leaders. You may work for such people. You may even respect them. But you may not like them. With Reagan, it was never that complicated: He liked people, and they liked him. That’s why there were so many “Reagan Democrats.” He didn’t have any armor; he was never aloof. Ronald Reagan was right there, all the time. He was genuine. He was not a construct like so many politicians these days. I don’t think people fully appreciate what a great president we had in him, and I don’t think we’ve had one as good since he left. Reagan affected people like nobody else. I was so fortunate to be associated with him. Was he perfect? Of course not. But he treated people better than anyone else I ever knew, and that made him as close to perfect as anybody I’d have had the privilege to know.