WASHINGTON — A major trait that endeared Jim Brady to the Washington press corps was his sense of humor, especially when he made fun of his own boss.
When Ronald Reagan was campaigning for president in 1980, Reagan drew scorn from environmentalists for saying that trees were a greater source of pollution than cars. Aboard the campaign plane, Brady pointed at a forest fire in the distance and yelled, “Killer trees! Killer trees!” to the great amusement of reporters.
After the election, Reagan’s advisers appeared hesitant to appoint him press secretary. Nancy Reagan was said to feel the job required someone younger and better-looking than the 40-year-old, moon-faced, balding Brady.
“I come before you today not as just another pretty face but out of sheer talent,” Brady told reporters. A week later, he got the job.
Brady, who died Monday at 73, would need humor and much more after March 30, 1981. On that day John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel just two months into the new president’s term. Reagan nearly died from a chest wound. Three others, including Brady, were struck by bullets from Hinckley’s handgun.
Shot in the head, Brady lived through hours of delicate surgery and then many more operations over the years. But he never recovered the normal use of his limbs and was often in a wheelchair. Besides partial paralysis from brain damage, he suffered short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.
Still, along with his wife, Sarah, he went on to become the face and as much as possible the voice of the gun-control movement in the United States. A federal law requiring background checks for handgun buyers bears his name.
Mrs. Reagan, the former first lady, said Monday she was “deeply saddened to learn of Jim Brady’s passing today. Thinking of him brings back so many memories — happy and sad — of a time in all of our lives when we learned what it means to ‘play the hand we’re dealt.'”
The lasting public image of Brady came from the worst day of his life. A news clip of the 1981 shooting, replayed often on television and in documentaries, showed him sprawled on the sidewalk after several Secret Service agents had hustled the wounded president into his limousine and others had pounced on Hinckley.
Although Brady returned to the White House only briefly, a year after the shooting, he was allowed to keep the title of presidential press secretary — and the $89,500 annual salary as assistant to the president for press relations — until Reagan left office.
The TV replays did take a toll on Brady. He told The Associated Press years later that he relived the moment each time.
“I want to take every bit of (that) film … and put them in a cement incinerator, slosh them with gasoline and throw a lighted cigarette in,” he said.
Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Hinckley is a patient, have said that the mental illness that led him to shoot Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster has been in remission for decades. Hinckley has been allowed to leave the hospital to visit his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Brady was a strong Republican from an early age. As a boy of 12 in Centralia, Illinois, where he was born on Aug. 29, 1940, he distributed election literature for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In a long string of political jobs, Brady worked for Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and John Connally, the former Texas governor who ran for president in 1979. When Connally dropped out, Brady joined Reagan’s campaign as director of public affairs and research.
Previously, he had worked in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: as special assistant to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as special assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant to the defense secretary.
He was divorced from the former Sue Beh when, in 1973, he courted Sarah Jane Kemp, the daughter of an FBI agent who was working with him in a congressional office.
Sarah Brady became involved in gun-control efforts in 1985, and later chaired Handgun Control Inc., but Brady took a few more years to join her, and Reagan did not endorse their efforts until 10 years after he was shot. Reagan’s surprise endorsement — he was a longtime National Rifle Association member and an opponent of gun control laws — helped turn the tide in Congress.
“They’re not going to accuse him of being some bed-wetting liberal, no way can they do that,” said Brady, who had become an active lobbyist for the bill.
The Brady law required a five-day wait and background check before a handgun can be sold. In November 1993, as President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, Brady said: “Every once in a while, you need to wake up and smell the propane. I needed to be hit in the head before I started hitting the bricks.”
At the time of the 30th anniversary of the shooting, the Bradys told NPR they were no longer Republicans. “Times change,” Sarah Brady said.
Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, said Monday that Brady “showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement that because of Brady’s work on gun control “there are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives as Jim.” In its own statement, the National Rifle Association said it extended “heartfelt condolences” to Brady’s family.
Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. In 2000, the press briefing room at the White House was renamed in his honor. The following year, Handgun Control Inc., was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Brady also served as vice chair of the National Organization on Disability and co-chair of the National Head Injury Foundation.
Survivors include his wife; a son, Scott, and a daughter, Melissa.
“We are heartbroken to share the news that our beloved Jim “Bear” Brady has passed away after a series of health issues,” Brady’s family said in a statement. It said they were “so thankful to have had the opportunity to say their farewells” but did not say where he was when he died.