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White House Honors Former Press Secretary Brady

James Brady honored
Former press secretary James Brady, his wife Sarah, left, and son Scott attend a ceremony dedicating the White House briefing room in James Brady's honor. (Frank Johnston - The Washington Post)


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By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2000; Page A3

Presidents and their press secretaries, it seems, love the fantasy of pushing a button and watching their least-favorite reporters plunge through trap doors into a subterranean swimming pool.

President Clinton gleefully invoked the image yesterday. James S. Brady, the press secretary who hatched the idea with Ronald Reagan, spoke longingly of it.

Pierre Salinger, standing off to the side, seemed intrigued. But he was press secretary so long ago--under John F. Kennedy--that the White House briefing room hadn't yet been built over the West Wing's swimming pool, so there was no floor in which to hide hinged doors.

Old stories about the love-hate relationships between presidents and White House journalists were much in vogue yesterday, as Salinger and three other former presidential press secretaries joined Clinton in a ceremony naming the briefing room for Brady, who was seriously wounded by a would-be assassin's bullet 19 years ago.

"Jim Brady is living proof that you can't kill courage, that it takes more than a cheap handgun to destroy a strong spirit," Clinton said.

Brady and his wife, Sarah, have become champions of tougher gun control since the March 1981 shooting by John Hinckley that wounded Reagan and nearly took Brady's life. Clinton in 1993 signed the "Brady bill," which requires a waiting period and criminal background check for most gun purchases, and the Bradys have become political allies of Clinton and Vice President Gore.

The briefing room, cramped and dowdy as it is, occupies valuable real estate in the West Wing. Workers built an indoor pool there in 1933 to aid Franklin D. Roosevelt's polio therapy. Reporters, meanwhile, mingled in the West Wing lobby, as they had since 1902. They literally rubbed shoulders with guests and staffers, often badgering them for news tips. By 1970, President Richard M. Nixon found the arrangement intolerable and had the briefing room built atop the pool.

"It is truly fitting that this room will be named for Jim Brady, for working here requires tenacity and perseverance and, above all, a sense of humor," Clinton said. "I also thought about enacting another one of Jim's ideas that he and President Reagan advocated: hinging the floor to give deserving reporters immediate, involuntary access to the swimming pool."

When Brady read a short speech from his wheelchair, it was unclear whether he made an inadvertent slip or devilish ad-lib. "I know this room is built over the old swimming pool," he said. "I always planned to put a trap door so that when President Clinton--"

"No!" Sarah Brady said, looking startled.

"Or Sam [Donaldson of ABC News] got out of line," her husband continued, "I only had to push a button, and splash!" He ended with a more serious nod to Clinton, saying: "This new honor, while deeply personal, I hope will remind all of us who work in this room in the future about the importance of continuing your commitment to public safety."

Joining Salinger on stage were former press secretaries Jerald terHorst of the Ford administration, Larry Speakes of the Reagan administration and Michael McCurry, Joe Lockhart's predecessor under Clinton.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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