James Brady is at home in the Arlington house that contains his duck decoys, his fishing rods, the keys to his jeep and, just added this month, an elevator for his wheelchair. He has shrunk 50 pounds, down from massive to chubby, and has a thin scar wandering along the top of his forehead. Otherwise, the recuperating White House press secretary looks remarkably the same as he did before a bullet, intended for the president, smashed into his brain.
One year later, Jim Brady's mind is still a little confused, though the pieces are all there. He's like a radio with a good receiver and bad transmitter. Brady understands the subtleties of everything around him, but because of still-healing speech, and neurological problems, has trouble getting his thoughts out. He doesn't sound like the funny spokesman most people remember, and it's startling. He is a much-liked celebrity in official Washington and almost a national hero, but lots of people don't know how to talk to him. There is something about the nature of the injury that Brady is recovering from--he's not himself, yet--that scares people.
"I'm not sure anyone understands how lonely it is," Brady says. "Because it sure is. By God, it is."
He looks over at his wife, nicknamed Raccoon.
"Do you understand, Coon?" he asks. "Do you understand that it's lonely?"
"I'm sure it is, hon," says Sarah Brady, quietly. "I don't think anyone would ever know."
She pauses. "I got a letter that first week or two from a woman whose husband had gone through something kind of similar," she says. "All she could say was: 'The utter confusion.' She kept using that word, 'confusion.' I try to think of that every time I see Jim, knowing some of the things he must be going through."
But she keeps repeating: "Life is so much better now."
It is a year since Jim Brady was shot, March 30, 1981, caught in gunfire that wounded the president. The sequence has rolled on television, over and over, like a slow-motion nightmare. It starts with a rainy afternoon outside the Washington Hilton. Ronald Reagan and a cluster of aides walk toward their cars. Gunfire. Deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver ducks. Reagan looks surprised, then pained. Brady's bleeding head lies face-down on a grate. He's taken to George Washington University Hospital. Neurosurgeon Arthur Kobrine looks at the X-rays.
"I don't think he's going to make it," he says.
At 5 p.m. that day, CBS' Dan Rather announced Brady's death. "Under the circumstances," he said, "I suggest we take a moment in James Brady's memory." Meanwhile, Kobrine had already opened Brady's skull and was removing blood, bone and damaged brain tissue from the path of the bullet. At 9 p.m. Brady was wheeled into the recovery room; later that night, Sarah Brady squeezed his hand and asked: "Do you know who this is?"
"Coon," he said softly.
Since then, the 41-year-old Brady has had three more operations, fevers, infections and pneumonia. Yesterday he was readmitted to George Washington University Hospital for treatment of thrombophlebitis, inflammation of the vein in his left leg. Hospital officials said he is in good condition and that the ailment is common among patients who have been immobile. They said surgery is not contemplated and believe it could be treated with medication.
His left hand and arm are mostly paralyzed and may remain so. His left leg is weak. He needs help walking, although doctors expect that in six months he'll be getting around with a cane.
He has become a national cause. Flowers, letters and his trademark stuffed bears overflowed his hospital room. After eight months there, he went home for good at Thanksgiving. Now his time is spent in strenuous daily therapy. "It's trying to get this foot to move three inches when it doesn't want to," he says. "The pain is excruciating."
His doctors say they don't know when he might return to his job as press secretary. Brady himself says, as his voice rolls to a disconcertingly high pitch: "I see myself working in the White House in some capacity as an adviser to the president--and not a mechanic."
"He's doing well," says Kobrine. "If he never were to improve more than he is today, he is still a well-functioning person who is a husband and a father and who participates in society. But he will improve. The day's going to come when he'll be getting up out of a chair, getting into a car and driving to his place of work. That's remarkable."
For his friends, seeing Brady's progress is as agonizing as it is exhilarating. Although he still has the same sharp-edged, sometimes whimsical sense of humor, it is markedly subdued. "This guy is as witty and as biting as any person I've ever seen," says Kobrine. "Now, I suppose there's been a little shaved off of that compared to what he was before. But you've got to understand that he's tired after a whole day. And he's still getting pretty heavy doses of medication that have a sedative effect."
In the fledgling days of the Reagan administration, interviewing Brady was a journalistic picnic. It produced such quotables as, "We have a saying on this side--'You never win an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrelful.' " During a flap over a plan for White House "crisis management," Brady sat down to a press breakfast and was immediately asked a tough question about Secretary of State Alexander Haig. "Whatever happened to foreplay?" he cracked. And during a lunch with Newsweek reporters, he broke up the table by describing workaholic budget director David Stockman as sleeping "in the closet hanging upside down with his wings folded over his eyes."
Now a Brady interview is a poignant and sobering experience. Although he is well aware of White House policy-making and infighting--and aptly understands, like any good press secretary, the underlying motive of a reporter's question--his brain hasn't recovered enough yet to regularly initiate conversation or respond in more than one or two sentences. His memory is good before the shooting but hazy afterward. He says he doesn't remember even leaving the Hilton. Sometimes, especially after a long day of physical therapy, he will sit silently and not answer a question at all; other times his mind will stick on one subject when the interview has shifted to another. But his doctors expect all that to improve.
"He perseverates," says Kobrine. "Which is the sign of an injured but healing brain. His brain tends to focus on the subject he's talking about and can't yet switch gears as quickly as you or I can."
There is also the problem of what Brady himself calls the "classic wail." Many of his sentences, particularly those on emotional subjects, end in a long, high pitch that sounds as if he might break down and sob. This is because the part of the brain that teaches adults to cover up emotion has been injured. He knows he does it, and is embarrassed by it. Friends simply ignore it or say "Take a deep breath, Jim." That helps.
"Think back to what you did when you were 12 or 13," says Kobrine, "and some boy was going to ask you out. Think about what you did to relax. He's sort of going through the same relearning process." Kobrine expects this to improve, too.
"It's amazing when you're talking to him," he adds. "He'll cry and wail and you wonder who you're talking to. And then he'll look you in the eye and come out with the most poignant, sophisticated, sensitive comment you can imagine . . . it's like when you throw a jigsaw puzzle up in the air and all the pieces haven't floated down to fit in the proper place yet. They will in time, and all the pieces are there, but they have to find their counterparts."
Then there's the matter of Brady's honesty. During this interview, while his wife listens aghast, Brady offers some unflattering assessments of White House colleagues. "Pooh, please," says Sarah Brady.
"I just really want to honestly answer your questions," says Brady. "And if that involves calling so-and-so an ------- . . ."
Ironically, the candor has to be considered a problem. Kobrine says it comes from the same injured part of the brain that causes the classic wail. Brady's frontal lobes, or "frontal inhibitory areas," are damaged. "Think of the little kid who says whatever pops into his mouth," says Kobrine, explaining that Brady is relearning how to be correctly inhibited.
Kobrine says there's another reason for the honesty. "I think he feels that if he can tell people things that really are true, then they'll know he's aware of the subtleties of what's happening," he says.
As Brady puts it:
"One of the things that bothers me more than anything is when a group talks about me like I'm not there, like I'm there as a corpse."
There is a terrible silence in the room. Sarah Brady looks tense.
But Brady takes care of it. "And they're blatant about it," he says, beginning a laugh. "They say, 'He'd make a nice-looking corpse."
The laughter that he brings to the room is a godsend.
Back to Normal
If you bring up the subject of John W. Hinckley Jr., the man who fired the gun, Brady will handle it with his usual good humor. "I think that guy was an awfully bad shot," he says.
That's one side. In February, Brady filed suit against Hinckley for $46 million, charging assault that caused "severe and permanent injury." Brady is asking $8 million in compensatory damages, $15 million in punitive damages, $8 million for negligence and $15 million for acting "willfully, wantonly and with a reckless disregard for human life."
"The Bradys are not litigious people by any means," says their lawyer, Jacob A. Stein. "But the harm done is so outrageous that it absolutely cries out for a lawsuit."
Brady doesn't deny his anger. Asked if it ever comes out, he replies, "Yes, it sure does . . . it's stored up in that little compartment in your head, and you hope it doesn't come out."
"I don't see it very often," says Sarah.
"That's one of the good things about having Coon around," Brady says. "You know, you can . . ." He punches his fist into the air.
"Is that why you're always punching at me?" says Sarah. "I just thought it was life as usual, getting back to normal." She laughs.
Brady says "to a certain extent" that he thinks "Why me?" He wails and then his voice lowers, closer to normal. "But I don't dwell on that." Later, though, he admits to feeling "a little dumped on."
"But not too much, do you?" says Sarah.
"No," says Brady flatly, "not too much."
Days of Therapy
The next day he's back at GW Hospital for his daily round of therapy. It starts with speech at 10 a.m., physical therapy at 11, lunch and a nap, then occupational therapy at 2:30 p.m., followed by physical therapy again at 3:30. He still receives his full salary as press secretary . The government covers his medical expenses. He's home by 5 p.m., the earliest hour of his career. "It's unprecedented," he says.
His physical therapist is Cathy Wynne, 25. She describes the pain he sometimes feels in therapy as similar to a severe muscle cramp, "although there's a lot of difference between a spasm that you or I would have and what Jim feels." She says his pain comes from a neurological problem, and because his sensory perception of it may be altered, "it quite possibly might be much worse."
Toward the end of the day, Brady looks drained. He has walked twice around the room with Wynne's help, taking a five-minute rest in between. His gait is a slow, smooth one, but he leans heavily on a crutch. Finished, he sinks into his wheelchair.
"Do you want to do the stairs now?" Wynne asks him.
"You do the stairs," says Brady, "and I'll watch you."
"Let's do the stairs," says Wynne.
"You do the stairs," says Brady. "This is your chance to be discovered."
"Come on, Jim."
"You've seen one stair," says Brady, "and you've seen them all."
Wynne laughs, helps him from the wheelchair, then guides him up and down four small steps. At 4:30, he's done for the day.
"How time flies," he says, "when you're having fun."
"His sense of humor has been a lifesaver," she says later. "I guess what's probably meant the most is yes, he's the press secretary for the president. But there's also his personality. It's really just Jim. A lot of people run around saying, 'I'm going to beat this, I'm going to fight this.' Well, Jim doesn't do that. He just works."
Earlier, she has helped him in exercises for his left arm. Brady sits on a bed as Wynne, on a stool across from him, pulls and pushes his hand and elbow. "Aieeeee," he says, grimacing.
"Just relax," she tells him. "Cool it."
"He has really minimal movement in his left arm," she says later, "but I keep working with it. You go for what you can get."
Earlier on this day, in the occupational therapy kitchen, he has peeled a potato, slowly. "What people don't realize is how difficult it is to do thing when you don't have one hand to stabilize," says Susan Baylis Marino, his occupational therapist.
Brady uses a specially designed cutting board with three sharp nails. They spear the potato into place and then, sitting in his wheelchair, he scrapes it with his right hand. His strokes are the quick, expert ones of the gourmet cook he is, but there is still no way to watch this without remembering the chaotic, delicious feasts Brady used to throw in his house and back yard. Before he relocated to Washington, he was Chicago's Bachelor Cook of the Year, winning the 1971 title with his recipe for Stuffed Pork to Stuffed People. In his kitchen at home there are spices on the shelf over the sink, on the shelf over the stove and on the outside of the pantry closet door. He has hundreds of cookbooks.
The potato done, Brady turns to Marino.
"Where's a union?" he says.
"A union? I'm confused."
Brady pauses. Marino looks uncomfortable. Then finally, giving up on his play on words, Brady almost sighs:
"Ohhhhhh!" says Marino. She seems relieved.
Home and Heart
Back at home before dinner, Brady is nibbling on cold cuts and Sarah is having a drink. Friends say the untold story of Jim Brady is his wife. "How she's borne up under this, damn if I know," says Bob Dahlgren, press spokesman for the Interstate Commerce Commission and one of the couple's closest friends. "Most people would really have fallen apart. She has not."
"It's been a tough row to hoe," says Brady, his voice beginning a classic wail, "and the Coon has done more to get me through than anything else . . . I know it's been hard on her."
Sarah Brady has seemed harried these days, particularly as the press has descended for the Year One anniversary stories. Friends worry that she is under too much pressure. They wish she'd take a relaxing vacation, and aren't sure Brady's upcoming visit to Chicago for the Cubs' opening day game is quite the answer. But Sarah remains an optimist.
"I don't think I ever knew what loving was until this happened," she told CBS' Bill Plante.
Still, she knows she is married to a different man, a man who, in an instant, became an emotional stranger. Her husband was once the strong partner. Now the balance has reversed.
"And it's one that I don't think either of us are very happy with," she says. "That's probably the biggest wish that both of us have, to get back to the other way. And it is getting back that way. Jim is becoming more and more assertive every day."
She says they have fights now. "Sure," she says. "Not more than we did before, but recently we have, and that's good. Six months ago we wouldn't have had a fight."
Before March 30, friends sometimes said that Brady wasn't the easiest husband to begin with. He could be outrageously charming, but also demanding and moody. He can still be, and Sarah isn't afraid to get irritated. But her patience is extraordinary.
"He's always been a complete maniac," says Sarah. "What's changed?"
"Well, I'm a complete maniac now," says Brady. "Before I was a fragmentary maniac."
"How does the future look to you?" comes a question for Brady.
Brady sits in silence.
"Pooh," says Sarah, "are you addressing yourself to that question?"
"No," says Brady.
"Or did you go to sleep right in the middle of it?"
"Uh-uh," says Brady.
"How do you think it's going over at the White House?"
"I think they need some help," says Brady.
"Oh, dear," says Sarah, getting nervous.
"How do you think Larry Speakes is doing?" is a third question.
"The old Catfish?" says Brady, beginning a classic wail.
"Deep breath," says Sarah.
Sarah Brady's low moments are generally kept to herself. "Sarah just won't complain," says Ron Weber, an old family friend from San Francisco. "She doesn't think that she herself has been through that much. She thinks this is just the way the world is because everybody would do what she has."
"I was back in October and I took her to dinner, just the two of us," says Stephanie Weber, Ron Weber's wife. "And she did let down, and she did cry. But it was amazing to me. She talked about friends who are unhappily married and said, 'You know, they'll never know what you know, or what I know.' "
Both Sarah and her husband say their marriage is stronger. "If anything," we're closer," says Brady.
"Oh, for sure," says Sarah. "It thrills me to hear him say that. Jim's not a person who normally says those kinds of things." She pauses, then says in a whisper: "I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes."
The Public Struggle
Brady's struggle has been a public one, charted by journalists, many of whom were and are close to him. People everywhere seem to know his story. White House reporters traveling outside of Washington are often asked by those who normally wouldn't know the name of the president's press secretary, "Hey, how's Jim Brady doing?"
At his public appearances around town, Brady's presence brings standing ovations. When he was introduced at last Saturday's Gridiron Club dinner, a packed ballroom stood and thundered applause. When he cut the ribbon for the renovated White House press room last November, reporters cheered. But when asked if he found it hard to watch the expressions on reporters' faces as he was first wheeled into the press room, Brady flatly says "Yes."
As for the press room event itself: "It wasn't difficult, and it wasn't particularly exciting," he says.
"Oh, please," says Sarah. "That was exciting. Now Pooh, you're just trying to make funny answers."
"No, I'm not," says Brady, dully.
"You don't think that was an excitment for you to go back and open that press room?" says Sarah.
"Well, a small excitement," says Brady. "But not a large one."
The White House expects him back; his job is still open
"I think he's a little embarrassed by the attention he's getting," says Kobrine. "He realizes he's been put on a pedestal because he's had so serious an injury. He's way less comfortable with this attention than he was with the attention he was getting before--which was a reflection of his ability and achievements."
"This is probably the biggest challenge of my life," says Brady. "Easily."