Thursday, March 30, 2006

To Jim Brady With Fondness

I met Jim Brady very early in my journalism career. He was press secretary for a U.S. senator. I took an immediate shine to this large fellow who lived life the same way and had the most wonderfully mischievous grin.

I was warned by my street-wise mentors that it was the job of people like Brady to make people like me like him, but I didn't care. How could you not like Jim Brady?.

Fast forward to March 31, 1981.

Brady had moved way up in the world and was now press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, who had been inaugurated only two months earlier.

Brady and Reagan had just stepped outside the Washington Hilton. The president was waving to a small group of people when shots rang out. Brady was hit first, the second round found D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and the third Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, who had opened the door to Reagan’s limo and was shielding the president with his body.

It first appeared that Reagan had not been hit, but he began spitting up blood and the limo was diverted to a hospital. The 70-year-old president was stabilized and then rushed into emergency surgery.

Reagan would spend 12 days in hospital and make a full recovery. Delahanty and McCarthy recovered quickly. Not so for Jim Brady, then 40, who came perilously close to death three times over the next year and has spent the rest of his life living with a brain injury that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound.

Fast forward to 1987.

As the supervising editor of my newspaper’s Washington bureau, I was invited to the White House from time to time. I saw Brady for the first time since he had been shot at a luncheon for Washington bureau editors and made sure I was seated next to him.

Brady and his wife, Sarah, were making quite a commotion campaigning for passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, and Reagan’s conservative coterie was not happy.

The bill required prospective buyers of handguns (like shooter John W. Hinckley) to wait for five days and pass a criminal background check before any transaction could be approved. Reagan remained close to Brady and he was a frequent White House visitor, but to the eternal shame of president and party, it was Bill Clinton who finally signed the Brady Bill in 1993.

Anyhow, Reagan was suffering through second-term problems not unlike the current president (although not nearly as grave) when I sat down next to Brady at lunch that day. The ostensible purpose of the visit, which had begun with a press briefing by an Army general by the name of Colin Powell and continued with a personal meet and greet by the president himself, was to flatter we editors into more positive coverage.

Brady, whose upbeat attitude and mischievous grin had survived multiple surgeries, would have none of it. Seated next to a fellow baseball fanatic, he and I talked about nothing but. His Chicago Cubs. My Philadelphia Phillies. The six or seven other editors at the table looked at us in astonishment. (And probably not a little jealousy, because I obviously was an "insider" and they weren't.)

I see Jim and Sarah Brady out and about from time to time when I visit the Delaware seashore, where they moved several years ago. I wave. Jim smiles back. I have no idea if he remembers who I am.

But one thing is for sure. Twenty five years of paralysis has not embittered him and he still has that wonderfully mischievous grin.

Bless you, Jim Brady.

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