The longest-running campaign gag of 1980 was Jim Brady's variant of the old Bob and Ray routine, satirizing an interviewer who never listened to the answers to his own questions while interviewing a mythical Elwood P. Suggins of Upper Montclair State Teachers College, the world's leading authority on the Giant Komodo Dragon, "the world's largest living lizard." After a few questions, the bemused and moonstruck interviewer would ask: "The Giant Komodo Dragon is a lizard, isn't it, professor?"
Brady and reporters who came to call him "perfessor" would while away hours on this nonsensical routine, which Brady wedded to an exposition on the Snake River. Every river the plane flew over (except for the real Snake river in Idaho) became the Snake or the south fork or the north fork of the Snake, which the interviewer would get the professor to describe as "North America's longest continuous waterway, which flows through or touches on 43 states and provinces as it makes its majestic way from the Polar Ice Cap to the Gulf of Mexico." The interviews ended with the moderator asking if anyone was going to Montclair because the professor needed a ride home from the radio station.
Airplane attendants, remembering times they'd been asked to identify rivers or lakes while simultaneously serving drinks or quieting a crying child, loved the routine. So did pilots, who announced (sometimes to the bafflement of local politicians and reporters) that the campaign plane, then passing over the Mississippi or the Great Lakes, was actually flying over the Snake.
Jim Brady likes to sit in his office throwing logs on the fire, drinking beer and telling stories to whomever happens by. Reporters, piling up in the outer office as the stories go on and on and their deadlines come and go, become furious. But their anger rarely survives the first minute or two with Brady, who tends to throw some more logs on the fire and tell them another story or two, occasionally even a useful one.
This hasn't been a textbook way to run a press office, unless the textbook is written by Bob and Ray. Brady has seemed always on the verge of organization, without ever quite getting there. There have been times, in the first weeks of the administration, when reporters longed for a more businesslike Brady.
Brady's style is unorthodox, to be sure, but his humor served to deflate those in need of deflating, whether in the White House or the press corps. Brady would pick a reporter he thought a bit on the self-important side and declare, with a straight face, that he was quitting the White House to take an $85,000-year-job as editor of Boxing Digest. During the campaign, when he was accused by his employers of being "a leak," Brady indignantly denied it.
When I suggested that "sieve" might be a better term, he chuckled and agreed. "This whole campaign's a sieve," he said. "That's why we're winning."
He had a point. He has irritated those who would prefer to tell the press as little as possible, but those he irritated are highly in his debt. They are in his debt because Brady's ability to distinguish seriousness of purpose from taking oneself too seriously has reinforced the style and strategy of a president who also has a sense of who he is. No one could stay angry at Jim Brady for long. And this has been of benefit to Reagan, who is trying to change things in Washington and doesn't need the added obstacle of personal animosity.
What Jim Brady has shown is that it is possible to perform under pressure in a very difficult job and remain just the person you were before you had that job -- and that you can defend a president's programs without developing the sense of sycophantic reverence we used to think obligatory in press secretaries.
What Brady shows to those of us who love him is a lot of class.