James S. Brady, Reagan’s press secretary and survivor of 1981 shooting, dies at 73

August 4

James S. Brady, the often-irreverent press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on his boss in 1981 and who became an enduring symbol of the fight against unfettered access to guns in American society, died Aug. 4 at a retirement community in Alexandria, Va. He was 73.

Gail Hoffman, a family spokeswoman, confirmed his death and said she did not know the immediate cause. Mr. Brady had long suffered from health problems resulting from the shooting.

Mr. Brady remained an influential presence in the gun-control debate decades after the attack, which left him partially paralyzed. He and his wife, Sarah, often described as the “first family” of gun control, battled six years for passage of legislation that in 1993 ushered in background checks for handguns bought from federally licensed dealers.

“Jim is a legend at the White House,” President Obama said in a statement, “for his warmth and professionalism as press secretary for President Reagan; for the strength he brought to bear in recovering from the shooting that nearly killed him 33 years ago; and for turning the events of that terrible afternoon into a remarkable legacy of service through the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Since 1993, the law that bears Jim’s name has kept guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. An untold number of people are alive today who otherwise wouldn’t be, thanks to Jim.”

Mr. Brady was a veteran Republican aide and a popular figure among Washington journalists. He was equipped with a rapier wit and a buoyant charm that tended to defuse controversy even before he began working for the White House in January 1981.

James Brady, the former press secretary to President Reagan, has died. Current White House spokesperson Josh Earnest reflected on Brady's legacy during Monday's daily briefing. (The Associated Press)

Incoming first lady Nancy Reagan had reportedly urged her husband to appoint a press secretary who was young and handsome enough to represent the White House on television.

Nicknamed “The Bear” for his burly physique, Mr. Brady was also balding and nearing 40. At the next press briefing, he quipped to the gathered journalists, “I come before you today as not just another pretty face, but out of sheer talent.”

The assassination attempt, 69 days into the Reagan presidency, redefined Mr. Brady from a garrulous footnote in American politics into an impassioned and often-impatient voice for gun-control legislation.

On March 30, 1981, Mr. Brady had originally asked one of his aides to go with the president on a routine assignment to address a gathering of the AFL-CIO at the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington. Mr. Brady changed his mind at the last minute and joined Reagan.

After speaking to the union delegates, Reagan and his party made their way out of the hotel and were walking to the presidential limousine when they were fired on about 2:30 p.m. The shooter was John W. Hinckley Jr., a young man who said he hoped the assassination would impress the actress Jodie Foster.

Outside the Hilton, bystanders, police officers and Secret Service agents wrestled Hinckley to the ground and arrested him. He got off six shots from the .22-caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver, which he had bought at a pawn shop in Dallas for $29.

Mr. Brady, the first person hit, was struck above the left eye. Reagan was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the limousine. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty were also injured. Brady, Reagan and McCarthy were taken to George Washington University Hospital. Delahanty was taken to Washington Hospital Center, which is now known as MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

“I still remember vividly that day,” Nancy Reagan said in a statement after Mr. Brady’s death, “when Sarah and I sat together in a tiny room near the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, trying to comfort each other while we both were gripped with unspeakable fear. The bond we established then was unlike any other.”

A shattering wound

The bullet that entered Mr. Brady’s head shattered into more than two dozen fragments, with several penetrating his brain.

His condition was so dire that Secret Service agents at the hospital reported erroneously to their superiors that the press secretary had died. CBS, NBC and ABC reported the news — later retracted — while delivering updates on the president.

Mr. Brady was not dead, but he was close.

Neurosurgeon Arthur I. Kobrine recalled telling the president’s personal physician about Mr. Brady: “It’s a terrible injury. I don’t think he has a chance. I don’t think he’s going to make it, but I think we should try.”

Mr. Brady came through surgery well, but the road ahead was punctuated by dramatic ups and downs. In the next several months, he underwent two surgeries to halt leaks of spinal fluid from his cranial cavity and another operation for a pulmonary embolism and had epileptic seizures, pneumonia and persistent fevers.

He was discharged from the hospital in time for Thanksgiving but needed continual nursing care at home and had to undergo extensive outpatient physical therapy.

On the first anniversary of the shooting, he was readmitted to GWU Hospital for treatment of a blood clot in his left leg, which had been partially paralyzed, along with his left arm. He required the use of a wheelchair.

The trauma left Mr. Brady in a state of depression, journalist Mollie Dickenson wrote in her 1987 biography of the press secretary, “Thumbs Up: The Life and Courageous Comeback of White House Press Secretary Jim Brady.” Kobrine said he used “tough love” to confront the matter.

“You’re shot in the brain,” he told his patient. “You’re never going to be as good as you were. You’ve just got to be tough, Jim.”

Fighting for gun law

Mr. Brady returned to work in November 1982 but on a limited, mostly symbolic basis until the end of Reagan’s second term in January 1989. His painstaking recovery helped galvanize the debate over gun control in a deeply personal way that would not be matched for a generation.

In public appearances, congressional testimony and through the news media, Sarah Brady became the public face of the gun-control movement in America. She used her husband’s story to rally support for legislation.

She joined what was then a little-known lobbying group, the National Council to Control Handguns, which was later called Handgun Control Inc. and is now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Mr. Brady joined his wife in the gun-control efforts, but his physical limitations made it difficult for him to play more than a supporting role for his wife’s endeavors.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention bill was introduced in Congress in 1987. The key provision of it imposed a background check — as well as a waiting period to buy a handgun from a federally licensed dealer. The background checks were designed to uncover those who had been barred from buying guns, including felons and the mentally ill.

In one of the many skirmishes that took place over the years before the Brady bill’s passage, Mr. Brady testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing members of Congress who declined to support the measure in previous votes of being “gutless” for their “pandering” to the National Rifle Association.

The influential gun lobby opposed the measure on several grounds, among them that any waiting period would inconvenience legitimate gun buyers.

In his testimony, Mr. Brady noted: “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower, and help getting dressed, and — damn it — I need help going to the bathroom. . . . I guess I’m paying for their convenience.”

Nearly 10 years to the day after he was nearly killed by Hinckley, Reagan himself joined the fray, announcing his support for the Brady bill in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law in 1993.

As activists, the Bradys were gradually joined by a growing roster of political voices such as Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was killed and her son wounded in a 1993 gun massacre, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who suffered traumatic head wounds in an assassination attempt in 2011.

The Brady Act would be cited time and again as a symbol of the importance of gun-control laws, but there was debate over its effect.

In 2000, a study conducted by public policy professors Philip J. Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University found that the Brady measure — at least in its initial form — had probably not been a factor in reducing gun-related homicides nationwide.

Results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Criminals who use guns typically do not buy them from a gun store or a gun dealer. They get them on the black market,” Cook, one of the foremost authorities on gun control, said in a speech at the University of Virginia’s law school at the time the study was published. “It seems to me the Brady Act was a good idea that did not go far enough.”

Campaigns, public service

James Scott Brady was born in Centralia, Ill., on Aug. 29, 1940. His father was a yardmaster for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad; his mother was a saleswoman and later a social worker.

The younger Brady was an athlete in high school, lettering in football, cross-country, track, tennis and swimming. He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served as the president of the Young Republicans chapter on campus.

He graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and political science and then became a field representative for the reelection campaign of Sen. Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.).

In the next decade, Mr. Brady worked for a variety of GOP officials at the state and national levels. He made frequent trips to Washington and on one of them met Sarah Jane Kemp, who was then working for the National Republican Congressional Committee. They were married in 1973.

His first marriage, to Sue Beh, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Melissa “Missy” Brady Camins; and a son from his second marriage, James “Scott” Brady Jr.

In the 1970s, Mr. Brady went to Washington to serve in the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford as special assistant to the secretary of housing and urban development, special assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget and as an assistant to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

During Jimmy Carter’s administration, Mr. Brady worked for Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.). As the 1980 presidential election approached, Mr. Brady was hired by John Connally. But after Reagan bested the former Texas governor in the South Carolina primary in March 1980, Connally’s campaign came to a halt. Mr. Brady then joined the Reagan camp as director of public affairs and research.

Honors and quips

His off-the-cuff wit sometimes got him into trouble. In one campaign statement, Reagan, no friend to environmentalists, had declared that trees caused as much pollution as cars.

During a campaign flight a short time later, Mr. Brady looked down to see a forest fire in Louisiana and ran through the plane yelling, “Killer trees, killer trees.” His joke was overhead by several journalists, who reported the incident. Reagan aides then suspended Mr. Brady for a week.

On his first day of work in the White House, Mr. Brady found two presents in his office left by Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, in the spirit of macabre humor and goodwill. The first was a bottle of champagne, and the second, which took on a rather ghoulish meaning over the years, was a bulletproof vest that had been handed down to him from Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen. As president, Ford had survived two assassination attempts.

Pinned to the vest was the note: “Jim, it’s not the guns that’ll get you in this job; it’s the gnats and the ants,” meaning the White House press corps.

Dickenson’s book about Mr. Brady became an acclaimed 1991 HBO movie, “Without Warning: The James Brady Story,” starring Beau Bridges and Joan Allen.

In 1996, Clinton presented Mr. Brady with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Four years later, Clinton named the White House briefing room in Mr. Brady’s honor.

At that event, Mr. Brady’s sharp wit reapppeared. “I still miss some of you,” he said.

He then noted that the room sat atop an old swimming pool and that it was his hope to install a trapdoor to be used when a particularly inquisitive reporter “got out of line.”

Jon Thurber, a freelance writer, is a former Los Angeles Times journalist.

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