Photo caption: Rhodri Morgan at the opening of new Freshwater offices in Cardiff in 2004, with (left to right): Jonathan Smith (Freshwater Board Director), Richard Hills (European Ryder Cup Director) and Steve Howell.
“Anyway, Rhodri,” I said. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”
It was March 1, 2002, and we were in a restaurant overlooking the East River in Manhattan. He was in New York for a weekend of events to mark St David’s Day, and I was there as a PR consultant to run one of them, a briefing for US journalists.
With us was Rob Holt, the Welsh Government civil servant responsible for sport and Wales’s new-found status as the country chosen to host the 2010 Ryder Cup.
“You can’t talk to the First Minister like that,” said Rob.
But Rhodri laughed and asked what I meant.
“You know,” I replied. “When you stitched me up.”
Rhodri feigned bewilderment. I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what I was talking about, but he wasn’t going to make it easy for me, and I had to remind him of an interview he’d given me in 1996 when I was working for the BBC in Cardiff.
He was a Labour MP, and on the front bench at Westminster at the time, and I had obtained a document revealing dodgy employment practices in the NHS in Wales. The story would later lead to the resignation of an NHS chief executive and an inquiry report confirming corrupt practices that allowed senior managers to pick up a redundancy cheque as they moved from job to job. Rhodri was salivating at the chance, in those pre-devolution days, to attack the Tory Welsh Secretary William Hague for allowing this to happen on his watch.
At the end of a typically colourful interview, he asked if he could have a copy of the document. I was wary but I wavered and bowed to his persuasive charm. My report went out on the lunchtime news. But by the time Wales Today was due to go on-air that evening our arch competitors at ITV had the story and an interview with Rhodri. The BBC’s head of news wasn’t best pleased. And I was looking dumb.
But I couldn’t really blame Rhodri for taking advantage of my naivety. He was a political animal to the core, and he didn’t mind treading on a few toes to make the most of an opportunity.
The fact I was able to take him to task that evening in New York was, though, because of something much more important about him. He was unaffected by his political status and always ready to talk on an equal footing with anyone. I felt I could say almost anything to him and get as much honesty back. There was, as they say, no side to him.
Over the years from 2002 to 2010, I saw him often. He opened Freshwater’s offices at Cardiff Gate in 2004. We worked together to promote Wales at Ryder Cups at the Belfry, the K Club and Valhalla. By the time of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in 2010 he had retired, but he still made his presence felt through weekly columns in the Western Mail and his new role as Chancellor of Swansea University.
When he died two weeks ago, the Five Live correspondent for Wales, Mark Hutchings, tweeted: “I last saw Rhodri Morgan 2 weeks ago as usual buying his veg from Riverside market. Familiar crumpled plastic bag in hand, chatting away.”
And that’s how I’ll remember Rhodri too: I first met him in the early 1990s sitting unobtrusively in the stand at Cwmbran Stadium watching some athletics – a sport he loved – wearing shorts and a T shirt, plucking sandwiches from a plastic bag.
He may have gone to Oxford and Harvard and become an MP, First Minister for Wales and a University Chancellor, but he was always grounded and never lost his human touch.
Rhodri was truly a man of the people – devoted to the many not the few.