"Of all the private initiative efforts that we have going forward, none is closer to my heart than this one," President Reagan said last night at the White House, looking over at Press Secretary James S. Brady seated in his wheel chair.
Others among the 100 guests also looked over at Brady, with his wife Sarah, solitary figures beneath the crystal chandeliers in the State Dining Room. Brady, severely wounded in the attempt on President Reagan's life two years ago, is the namesake for a special fund that will provide assistance to others like him, whose lives are endangered because their jobs put them at the scene of an assassination attempt.
"As we moved along thinking there was a need that had to be met in this regard in this country, and out of the private sector, it became very obvious to us that a true inspiration for this matter was in Jim and Sarah Brady," said Washington attorney James T. Lynn, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
"I think the way they have handled a very tough situation has been something all of us look to, admire, are proud of and try to emulate. So thus, the James S. Brady Foundation," said Lynn, its president.
Among President and Mrs. Reagan's guests were foundation board members and trustees, who so far have raised nearly $900,000 of a $2 million goal that they hope to reach by Sept. 30.
The bipartisan turnout included AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, Dr. Dennis S. O'Leary of George Washington University Hospital, CBS correspondent Bill Plante, Riggs Bank chairman Joe L. Allbritton and three experts in Republican and Democratic party fund raising.
"It's bipartisan because the Brady Foundation and what it stands for is really the best of America," said attorney Robert S. Strauss, foundation vice chairman and a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
"Brady," Strauss said to the guest of honor, "I'm a man who has spoken in this room many times but under different auspices. This is the first time I've spoken in this house under these new auspices. Don MacNaughton a board member reminded me that I said to him one time, 'You know, there are a lot of people who think Lyndon Johnson is going to come back again and are still scared. And I'm one of them.' "
Nashville businessman Joe M. Rodgers, the foundation's other vice chairman and former Republican National Committee finance chairman, told Strauss, to the crowd's amusement, that "the next time we're going to raise money for the same candidate--as long as it's my candidate."
The Strauss-Rodgers exchange moved chief fund-raiser S. Jackson Faris, a Nashville management consultant, to say that where the foundation was concerned, there wasn't any doubt that politics was secondary.
"We hope we never have to use a nickel of what we raise, but historically we've seen that this kind of thing happens. The government, business and the insurance industry aren't set up for taking care of victims of assassination attempts," said Faris.
So it fell to the private sector to take up the slack and that all started a year ago, he said, as he and Joe Rodgers were flying aboard Air Force One with the president to Nashville. Down the aisle of the plane came White House Chief of Staff James Baker and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver who told the two passengers that they had an idea and needed some help.
"I said, 'Here we are, on Air Force One--what are we going to say? No?' " Faris laughed.
Neither Faris nor Rodgers said no, of course. And a few minutes later, when Deaver and Baker reached Bob Strauss by telephone, he didn't say no either. Congress made it possible by passing legislation allowing government employes to accept the foundation's support.
"We'd have helped anyway because of Jim and Sarah," said Faris, who knew them both from his days as RNC finance director.