Washington Loses The Bear

President Ronald Reagan with James Brady

Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library

Washington Loses The Bear
| published August 5, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

James Brady, press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, died on Monday at age 73.

Brady, who was well-liked by the Washington press corps, and who was affectionately known as “The Bear” by reporters and editors, was one of the four people wounded on March 30, 1981 when a would-be assassin fired a handgun at President Reagan. One bullet struck Brady’s head in the melee outside the Washington Hilton Hotel where Reagan had just completed a speech to members of the AFL-CIO. Brady’s condition was so bad that for a brief period that afternoon, many of the major networks reported that he had died. Of the TV networks, only CNN reserved judgment on the news of his passing.

Brady had been walking in the President’s entourage when John Hinckley opened fire. Brady would be the most seriously injured of everyone struck that day, and—despite making a remarkable recovery, he remained disabled from his head injuries for the rest of his life.

Brady had started his career in the political world early in his life. A political science major at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he went to work on the staff of Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, then one of the highest-ranking Republicans. Brady also worked in top jobs in other government roles, including the Office of Management and Budget, Housing and Urban Development, and later at the Department of Defense where he served as chief assistant to the Secretary of Defense. During the years that he became the classic Washington insider, Brady also proved that he was a gifted wordsmith and press point man. In the 1970s, he went to work as a senior staff member for Republican Senator William Roth of Delaware, and in 1979 he was hired by former Texas Governor John Connally to manage media relations. When Connally’s campaign fizzled, Reagan brought Brady on board to manage research, public affairs and position papers. After Reagan’s landslide victory over President Carter in November 1980, Reagan brought him on board to become a permanent member of the White House team.

Brady was well-respected and well-liked by reporters, columnists, producers and editors, especially for his sharp, quick wit, and for his clear and blunt speaking style. A lifelong Republican, Brady looked to be the perfect fit for the Reagan administration at a time when most reporters—deemed by conservatives to be a mostly liberal cadre of cynical elitists—were, at best, mildly hostile toward Reagan and his agenda. For Brady, the job of Press Secretary to Reagan was to be his top resume line item, and his life’s big achievement. But the job he had seemingly worked a lifetime to attain would only last a couple of months. After ten weeks on the job he became one of the victims of Hinckley’s shooting spree on that chilly March day.

A fraction of a second before Hinckley began shooting, reacting to voices from the crowd of onlookers and reporters, Brady turned slightly, and when the first shot was heard, he rotated completely in the direction of sound. After being struck in the head, Brady fell face first onto the sidewalk, where he sprawled motionless. Meanwhile, a violent, chaotic skirmish unfolded around him—with police and U.S. Secret Service agents struggling to subdue Hinckley. Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty lay prone alongside him, also seriously wounded. When the shooting began, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr instinctively shoved Reagan into the open car door of the limousine, hurling the President forward with such force that each man bumped his head on the upper door frame. Reagan had been struck too, by a bullet which ricocheted off the heavy doorframe of the car, but his chest wound would not be discovered for two minutes. When the President began to complain in the limo to Parr that in the fracas he (Reagan) may have broken a rib upon being shoved through the door, Parr asked to have a look at the President’s chest. Before Reagan could open his jacket, he began coughing up bright orange-red blood—a sign, Parr knew from his first aid training, that a lung had been punctured. Reagan had also been shot in the arm.

Both Reagan and Brady would undergo surgery, and both would recover. Brady’s surgeon, who worked for hours to remove the bullet from Brady’s brain, always maintained that Brady had saved Reagan’s life (though it can also be argued that Parr, by doing his job, also saved the President’s life).

Also shot was Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, who stepped directly into the line of fire. One bullet passed over the head of aide Mike Deaver so closely that Deaver heard the high-pitched whiz and felt the heat from the bullet on his mostly bald scalp; Deaver had ducked low enough that the bullet missed his head by as little as one sixteenth of an inch. Delahanty was hit in the neck, and McCarthy—who, to protect Reagan, had spread his body to make himself the primary target—took a bullet in his stomach. Photographic and video images of the incident show just how quickly the agents assigned to protect the president react to threats, and notable (and perhaps chilling) even to this day is how quickly special agent Robert Wanko produced a formidable Uzi submachine gun from an innocuous-looking silver briefcase.

Hinckley was subdued by police and agents, and at least one agent had to fight off yelling bystanders who were attempting to injure Hinckley.

Brady was left partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, and he never fully regained his speech, which remained somewhat slurred for decades. Though confined to a wheelchair for many years, Brady worked hard to regain his ability to walk, and in the last years of his life was able to walk with a cane. As a tribute to Brady, he kept his job title until the end of the Reagan years, and those who worked as press spokesmen after Brady were known simply as “acting” Press Secretaries. Later, the media conference room at the White House would be officially renamed the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

James Brady and his wife Sarah became tireless advocates for gun legislation, and the bill which bears his name—the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act—instituted a mandatory waiting period on the sale of handguns, as well as a background check on all sales of weapons. Hinckley had used a Rohm RG-14 blue steel revolver which held six bullets, and in the melee he had managed to unload all six shots in less than two seconds. Hinckley had loaded it with the type of Devastator-brand bullets which include small charges designed to explode on contact, and though at least four of the bullets fired that day did not explode, the one that entered Brady’s brain succeeded in bursting upon impact, making Brady’s head injuries even more severe than if the bullet had passed right through. Surgeons who worked on Brady said that the bullet’s explosion left 25 tiny fragments in the wound and in his brain.

Brady had a sense of humor that was at times irreverent, and at times disarming. He was well-liked by almost everyone who knew him in Washington for his uncanny ability to cut through partisanship with his easy charm and quick wit.

In the years after the shooting, Brady and his wife Sarah became activists for the control of handguns. Merging their efforts with that of a small group called Handgun Control Inc., the organization would gain momentum and eventually become known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In 1987, a full bill was introduced in Congress crafted to create basic restrictions on handgun purchases, the main provision of the legislation being a waiting period accompanied by a background check. A few years later, Reagan himself—a gun owner and an advocate of the right of citizens to own weapons—announced his support of the Brady Bill. The bill eventually passed the House and the Senate, and was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993.

A decade more would pass before a variety of studies would call into question the effectiveness of the key provisions of the Brady Bill.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Book Review: Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald reagan and the Campaign That Changed History; Craig Shirley; Thursday Review archives 2012.

Book Review: Collision Course: Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America; Joseph A. McMartin; Thursday Review archives 2011.