"Hello, my dear. Step right in. Don't forget to tell the nice ladies at the table you're here, so they won't have to tell mommy you're lost . . ."

The USA Today newspaper-stand robot whirled about outside the J.W. Marriott Hotel's Capitol Ballroom, flirting with women in long gowns, blurting out commands. Guests queued up for complimentary photos in front of 10-foot reproductions of the newspaper's front page, headlining "Our 50th Inaugural," while waiting in a long reception line for USA Today's first inaugural party.

"Gannett puts on the best spread of any of them," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), stationed at the rare beef table inside, oblivious to the award soon to be presented. "Jim Brady? 'Scuse me, but they're givin' Jim an award tonight? Well, I'm for Jim receivin' anything he can get, 'cause he deserves it."

Blue-and-white balloons waved above buffet tables of five-alarm chili and desserts. J.W. Marriott Jr. boasted, "Jim and Sarah Brady first met at a Marriott hotel." A crowd of several hundred, including Changing Times editor in chief Austin Kiplinger, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), buzzed as the presidential press secretary injured in the 1981 assassination attempt walked with the aid of a cane and his wife, Sarah, to the podium.

Gannett Co. chairman Allen Neuharth, looking worn from his night flight from the Super Bowl, said, "We didn't have to think hard about who should get our first Unity Award. Jim's the only Republican that I know who is loved by Democrats and Republicans alike."

Neuharth presented Brady with a copper etching showing him in his characteristic thumbs-up pose and with a $10,000 grant to the James Brady Foundation from the Gannett Foundation.

"How many ways can I say thank you? Let me count the ways. Thank you very much," a subdued Brady addressed the party, before Sarah Brady added, "It's very seldom we see Jim speechless, and I know he's as overwhelmed as I am by this award."