For the past 6 1/2 years, the most inspiring story in Washington has been the struggle of White House press secretary Jim Brady to recover from the near-fatal head wounds he received in John Hinckley Jr.'s attempt to assassinate President Reagan in March 1981. Now this story has been given the full-scale treatment it deserves in ''Thumbs Up'' by Mollie Dickenson.
It is a book that makes you weep for pain and for joy, along with two of the most courageous people this country can count among its citizens, Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah. Discount if you wish for my friendship with the Bradys and the author, but believe me, this is a Washington story that will fill you with pride. It's a powerful antidote for the cynicism-breeding novels, memoirs and news stories that usually come from the capital.
It is a near miracle that there is such a story to tell. The first of six bullets Hinckley fired from close range split Brady's skull just above the left eyebrow, splintered and sent its fragments upward on a destructive diagonal path ending just behind his right ear.
In the emergency room, Dr. Arthur I. Kobrine, the surgeon who was treating Brady, told the president's physician, ''It's a terrible injury. I don't think he has a chance . . . but I think we should try.'' While Brady was still in surgery, the television networks were told -- and reported -- that he had died.
But 24 hours later, he was able to squeeze Sarah's hand. The second night at George Washington University Hospital, he could take a ball of gauze and tape and toss it across the room. The next morning, the nurse had him demonstrate the trick for Kobrine, who asked him what he was throwing. ''Ball,'' Brady said, uttering his first word. And amid the tears of Sarah and nurse Betsi Horwath, Kobrine says, ''It was then I knew that his computer hadn't crashed.''
''The computer'' that was saved was one of the quickest, wittiest minds in the political world, housed in a shapeless bulk of a body, which made Brady defensively nickname himself ''The Bear.'' Dickenson does not suggest that Brady's bulkiness helped save him, but his sense of humor clearly has been one of the keys to his recovery. Reading ''Thumbs Up,'' I found it extraordinary how often Brady's own observations made me laugh aloud at what would otherwise be almost unbearable circumstances.
''Thumbs Up'' is unsparing in depicting the repeated setbacks, the all-but-overwhelming frustration both Jim and Sarah Brady have faced. When he beat the 10-1 odds against his even surviving surgery, and when he showed so quickly that he retained vital motor and mental skills, false hopes of a quick, complete recovery were raised.
Two years after the shooting, Brady, seriously depressed, sobbed out his frustration to Kobrine. The surgeon, who had grown immensely fond of this patient, decided it was time for ''tough love.'' He told Brady: ''You're shot in the brain. You're never going to be as good as you were. You've just got to be tough, Jim. You've just got to be tough.''
Brady has been tough. And in a different way -- which this book describes but does not romanticize -- his wife, Sarah, has demonstrated at least equal strength of character. As Dickenson recounts how the Bradys have struggled to come to terms with the reality that ''he had permanently entered the world of the disabled,'' one key is their ability to turn their personal plight into a lesson for others.
Jim Brady has become a counselor, role model and inspiration to other patients in his continuing program of physical therapy. And Sarah Brady has become a national spokeswoman for the fight to control access to the kind of handgun Hinckley used against her husband and the president.
The Brady saga is not finished. He continues in therapy, now including his well-publicized horseback riding, and his physical mobility outside the wheelchair continues to improve. So does his endurance and his mental agility. Jim and Sarah Brady have become welcome regulars on the Washington social scene. At an autographing party for ''Thumbs Up'' last week, he had a word of personal greeting for everyone in line -- and a joke.
With Jim Brady, you keep coming back to the sense of humor. Before the shooting, he delighted equally in quick one-liners and in complex tales of improbable romance and adventure, often involving mythic animals. Since the shooting, his penchant for raunchy and/or ridiculous animal tales is just as strong.
''You've got to persevere,'' he told an NBC interviewer last year. ''Persevere, and keep your sense of humor. They couldn't shoot that away.''
''Thumbs Up'' is not specifically a Christmas book, or a self-help book, or an inspirational tome. It is a professionally written, remarkably unsentimental report on how two people have drawn the strength they needed from doctors, nurses, therapists, family members and friends -- but most of all from each other and from themselves -- to deal with the calamity that struck them and permanently altered their lives.
I can't think of a better Christmas present for anyone who is facing troubles -- or someone who is heedless of the blessings in his own life.