Occasionally we are privileged to know someone larger than life who while not seeking fame became a true hero. One such American hero passed away last week and was buried in private funeral services Wednesday.
Thirty-three years ago, 69 days into the Reagan presidency, a crazed gunman attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan with a $29 handgun he’d purchased at a Texas pawn shop. Along with Secret Service agent Tim McCarty and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady was unfortunately wounded by stray bullets; of the three, only Jim never fully recovered from his devastating brain injury and was consigned to a lifetime of health problems as a result of the shooting. Through no fault of his own, Jim was simply in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time.
Jim had assigned an assistant to accompany the president that day — a routine speech at a Washington hotel — but at the last minute changed his mind. The rest is well-known history. Countless are the times I have asked myself the question, “Why him and not me?” With his typical wit, Jim even once asked me that question.
For those of us on Reagan’s personal staff, the searing memories of that horrendous day remain vividly with us forever. Yet for Jim, it was more than memories. It was a physical agony with him every hour of every day through all the intervening years, confining this gregarious bigger-than-life personality to a wheelchair as he suffered the lasting consequences of gunfire gone astray. He is now at rest.
We will never know how two tiny bullets changed the course of the Reagan presidency, and thus the course of world history. Until the end of Reagan’s two terms, Jim remained his press secretary — in title. Yet from that early spring day he was never again able to fulfill the duties of that position. The shooter was imprisoned, but so was Jim, to a prison of a different kind.
Jim was much more than White House press secretary. He became an American hero by the life he lived and the example of character he set for his nation. He simply refused to surrender. He personified unrelenting courage in the face of permanent challenge, amiable charm in the most daunting circumstances, kindness to all he knew and the ability to laugh especially at himself. Those serving in Washington today would do well to take a lesson from Jim’s life and character.
One night after Jim had recovered to the degree medically possible, my wife Bonnie and I joined Jim and Sarah for dinner. Their new life was tough in every sense of the word, yet there was not a word of complaint about what had been involuntarily thrust upon them. Rather, they were in good spirits and much in love, Jim always the jokester, Sarah the unruffled guiding light.
Together they have devoted their lives since to a noble national campaign to secure federal gun legislation, named in honor of Jim, and to an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence. Jim did not allow a single senseless act to take him completely out of the game.
I’ve worked with several White House press secretaries, but none was ever so popular with the Washington press corps. Jim was a gifted raconteur with a piercing wit, a jaunty confident charisma and straight-talking candor that endeared him to all who knew him.
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Once during Reagan’s campaign for the White House, Reagan made a statement, widely misinterpreted, about trees causing pollution. The next day on the airborne campaign plane, looking down on a forest fire, Jim ran through the plane yelling, “Look. Killer trees, killer trees.” And at the next campaign event, Jim was spotted by a large tree with a sign, “Cut me down before I kill again.” His was the special gift of defusing difficulty with disarming humor.
America was blessed to have his service and example. That is the Jim Brady I gratefully remember, and honor.
Stephen M. Studdert served as a White House adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He resides in Midway, Utah.