For Reagans, a Nostalgic State Dinner

Times Staff Writer

The Reagan era of White House entertaining ended Wednesday night exactly the way it began eight years ago: In a regal lovefest for the President’s favorite world leader, Margaret Thatcher.

The British prime minister, Reagan’s ideological twin, was the Administration’s first state dinner guest of honor in February of 1981. Wednesday night marked the Reagans’ 55th and last formal dinner for a foreign leader, and it was fitting that it was in honor of Thatcher because, “she was the first, and we love her,” First Lady Nancy Reagan said.

A Fond Farewell

The Reagans and Thatchers toasted and danced an extremely fond farewell in the company of 120 guests who spanned the worlds of arts, entertainment, business, politics and sports. Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Orel Hershiser sat at Reagan’s and Thatcher’s head table of eight, wedged handsomely between Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr and Nancy Kissinger, while California Gov. George Deukmejian dutifully digested his baby lobster in caviar yogurt sauce at one of the 14 other tables.


“I wanted this to be special,” Mrs. Reagan said, and indeed it was. The toasts took on an extremely personal and affectionate form, and the Reagans and Thatchers traded partners to dance to “Hello, Dolly!” as the evening came to a close.

Reagan saluted Thatcher as a “leader with vision and courage to stay the course. . . She is a world leader in every sense of the word. . . . As I prepare to leave this office in January I take considerable satisfaction in the knowledge that Margaret Thatcher will still reside at No. 10 Downing Street.”

Thatcher praised both the President and the First Lady as Mrs. Reagan got teary-eyed.

“Looking back on it all, what do we see?” Thatcher asked in her toast. “I can do no better, Mr. President, than repeat your own favorite verdict on a film script: ‘That story,’ Sam Goldwyn once said, ‘is wonderful. It’s magnificent. It’s prolific.’

“So, too, Mr. President, have been the Reagan years.

“I also pay tribute to that special person who has stood by your side in all your endeavors. You do not need me to tell you, Mr. President, that in the First Lady of the United States you had a companion and partner whose charm, dignity and quiet but sure courage have won the hearts of millions.”

Leather Album

Thatcher’s parting gift to the Reagans was a leather photograph album containing nine black and white photographs from the President’s 1949 movie “The Hasty Heart,” which he filmed in Britain.

As festive as the evening was, there was some interest in those who did not attend. Actor Tom Selleck showed up with his mother, Martha Selleck, because his wife, Jillie Mack, was “in Los Angeles, gestating.” The couple’s baby is due in January, he said.

Also absent, but not exactly gestating, was Vice President-elect Dan Quayle, whose failure to crack the guest list had been a juicy topic in Washington gossip circles. When someone asked the President why Quayle was not invited, he replied, “You now, I don’t get involved in the guest list there, and I don’t know why. . . . Believe me he will be welcome any time to the White House.” Quayle himself brushed off the issue earlier in the day, telling a reporter he was scheduled to have breakfast with the prime minister.

President-elect Bush looked noticeably jubilant at the affair and insisted that he was not feeling any fear about assuming his enormous task. “No, you do your best; that’s all you can do,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of people wishing me well. It doesn’t have the funny, traumatic feeling you would think.”

Any Changes?

Barbara Bush, the future First Lady, showed she already knows how to wave off pesty reporters. When one asked if she planned any changes in the White House, she replied, “I’m talking to Gloria Deukmejian.”

Former football star Rosie Greer told Bush he thought he had won the election because he had more experience.

“You think that was it?” Bush questioned. “Maybe it helped a little. It’s hard to tell with elections.”

As has been the case in the previous 54 Reagan state dinners, the evening had a Hollywood flair to it. In addition to Hershiser, Deukmejian and Selleck, Dolores Hope enjoyed the piano performance of Michael Feinstein, who rose to fame in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Feinstein, who brought Shana Alexander as his guest, entertained with tunes ranging from Mrs. Reagan’s favorite, “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” to “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a tune played at the first state dinner.

Other arty notables included poet Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize winner; dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, artist David Hockney, actress Loretta Young, opera star Beverly Sills, “Cats” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and actress Sarah Brightman, and authors William Novak and Tom Wolfe. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, space shuttle commander Frederick Hauck and IBM chairman John Akers mingled with the likes of Walter and Lee Annenberg, Malcolm Forbes and the Rev. Billy Graham.

‘Feel Your Roots’

Hershiser was asked to compare his dinner attendance with pitching in a World Series and said, “This makes me feel a lot more like an American. You can feel your roots. It’s just a thrill to be here. It’s fantastic.”

Seated around the head table, in order, were Reagan, Thatcher, Boston University President John Silber, National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height, Annenberg, Nancy Kissinger, Hershiser and Orr.

The President regaled Hershiser over dinner with stories of his days as a baseball broadcaster. “It was a joy to be around to hear that,” Hershiser said. “The President said he likes football and baseball equally.”

Hershiser’s wife, Jamie, got an earful from Henry Kissinger on the Soviets. Kissinger declined an opportunity to offer a reporter a few interesting words. “My wife does the pithy comments. I do the 50-minute ones,” he explained.

For the fete, the State Dining Room was turned into a garden of peach roses, with hundreds of the flowers gathered in topiary trees on each table and arrayed in bouquets around the room.

Using Red China

The guests, dining on the $200,000 red Reagan china, were served, in addition to the lobster, roasted saddle of veal perigourdine; asparagus with hazelnut butter; autumn mixed salad and a selection of cheeses, as well as chestnut marquise with pistachio sauce, orange tuiles and ginger twigs.

Nancy Reagan, awash in a red satin Oscar de la Renta and a large necklace of costume jewels, said, “I feel very sentimental and nostalgic.”

Barbara Bush was asked if they would be as good friends with the Thatchers as the Reagans had been.

“I don’t know that anybody will be as good friends as they are,” she said. “But we’ll be friends.”