THUMBS UP

The Life and Courageous

Comeback of White House

Press Secretary Jim Brady

By Mollie Dickenson

Morrow. 560 pp. $19.95

MIDWAY THROUGH the 1980 presidential campaign William Casey, Edwin Meese and Lyn Nofziger met and decided to offer Jim Brady a job. Brady was a newcomer to the Reagan team but his skill, energy and humor earned him high marks. Six months later President-elect Ronald Reagan appointed Jim Brady his press secretary.

During the campaign and after, Brady worked intimately with the Reagan first team, including Casey, Meese and Nofziger as well as Michael Deaver and Richard Allen. Seven years later, only two of these men -- Brady and Meese -- still work for the president. Their ride on the Great Ship of State has not been a smooth one. All save Brady have been enmeshed in legal and political controversy surrounding their uses of power. Brady has suffered his own, quite different punishment, felled on March 31, 1981, by one of John Hinckley's halfmad bullets aimed at Ronald Reagan.

In Thumbs Up, Mollie Dickenson tells the Jim Brady story with compassion and verve. Brady grew up in rural Illinois, a political junkie from college onward, inexorably headed toward the nation's capital. Arriving in Washington in 1972 at the age of 32, Brady had no trouble putting his satchel of political savvy, media skill and Republican connections to work, serving a variety of press and public relations functions first at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and then at Defense. Following the Carter election, he moved to the Hill, becoming press secretary to Delaware Republican Sen. William Roth, noted (in part because of Brady) for the Kemp-Roth, supply-side tax plan. Drawn always to the political candle, he left Roth in 1979 and signed on as Democrat-turned-Republican John Connally's press secretary for the opening rounds of the 1980 presidential campaign. When Connally withdrew from the race, Meese and company were ready to put Brady to work.

Known affectionately around Washington as "The Bear," Brady was noted for his sense of humor, good times and good food. But the Bear was also a pro. "There's nothing more dangerous than an idle reporter with a typewriter, who has a certain amount of space to fill," Brady was fond of saying on the Reagan campaign trail. "A stop at my desk on the plane was compulsory if you were going to write about the event." Political reporter David Hoffman of The Washington Post, who watched Brady function over the years, observes, "Jim understands public versus private information. He was always performing a defining function. He was always the spokesman. Jim constantly disseminated information as long as you were with him. He understood a lot of levels to play on."

Brady came close to death on the afternoon of March 30, 1981, and several times thereafter. The bullet severely damaged the right side of his brain, leaving his left arm and leg compromised and his mental and psychological functioning wounded. His recovery -- the real tale of Thumbs Up -- has been extraordinary in its profundity and its duration. Long after the textbooks say that there should be no further return of function, Brady continues to amaze his neurosurgeon, friend and cheerleader, Dr. Art Kobrine, with his continued improvements and adaptations. "All through it and even to this day," comments Kobrine, "he was so witty that it sometimes took me a minute to figure out whether he was off the wall or right on target."

TODAY, Jim Brady is mobile, articulate, humorous and, as always, politically intuitive. His political role, however, has changed. No longer is he a handmaiden to someone else's campaign. Today he is the incumbent, a spokesman for the disabled, a role model for those struggling with injury and disease and a reminder that handguns abet violence in America, affecting all ranks of society. Aided by his wife, Sarah Kemp Brady, he travels the country providing inspiration by his presence and his words to people with handicaps, disabilities and brain injuries.

Jim Brady is still the presidential press secretary, making him one of the longest tenured members of the Reagan administration. Brady and his supporters have fought to maintain his position, part as symbol and part as support. The White House has accommodated the Bradys by constructing the president's press hierarchy around his largely symbolic position. Troubling, though, is the distance that Dickenson reports the president has put between himself and the Jim Brady of today. She cites the Los Angeles Times' Jack Nelson's report of a White House ceremony to kick off fundraising for the newly established Jim Brady Foundation. Reagan arrived for the event, said " 'Hi Jim,' stepped up to the microphone, pulled out his index cards, read them for about a minute, turned around and went back to the Oval Office. He never talked to Brady. I stood there dumfounded." According to Dickenson, Reagan has never brought Brady to the Oval Office for a personal visit to recognize their mutual ordeal. Surely this is an extraordinary disappointment to Brady, his family and his well-wishers.

Thumbs Up may not be a trip to the Oval Office but it is a tribute to a man whose struggle for life has a meaning quite different from and, perhaps, stronger than the contribution he made in politics. Jim Brady's struggle speaks to many who would never have heard him as the president's press secretary.

Fitzhugh Mullan teaches public health at The Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is "Vital Signs: A Young Doctor's Struggle With Cancer."