Jim Brady, Reagan’s Gentle ‘Bear’ Who Roared Back to Life After Being Shot

Remembering the press secretary who became a gun-control warrior after nearly being killed by the Gipper’s would-be assassin.

Dirck Halstead/Liaison, via Getty

He had only served two months and ten days as the White House press secretary when a bullet to the head struck him down outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. It was March 30, 1981, and as President Reagan’s motorcade sped to the hospital carrying the wounded president, Jim Brady lay bleeding on the sidewalk in a fight for his life that many thought improbable that he could win.

But win he did, and though it took many surgeries and many more prayers from those who loved him, he survived, his garrulous personality intact, his sense of humor always at the ready, an inspiration to all us foot soldiers in politics.

I was part of the press pool that day, and for me the image endures of Brady lying there stilled by a bullet in the midst of all the chaos. He was 40 years old. His condition appeared so grave that no one questioned multiple media reports soon after the shooting that Brady was dead. What we didn’t know at the time is how touch-and-go it was with President Reagan while the First Lady and Sarah Brady sat together awaiting news from the operating rooms. Dr. Arthur Kobrine, the neurosurgeon tending to Brady, later said if Brady had arrived even minutes later than he did, he would not have made it. Kobrine was in the midst of operating on Brady when he was told the media was reporting his death. “No one has told me and the patient,” he said.

Confusion reigned back at the White House briefing room where reporters clamored for more detail. The report of Brady’s death was retracted, but it would be hours, days even, before his survival was insured, and months before everyone could bring themselves to admit he would never return to the job he seemingly was made for.

Reporters loved Brady, and I dare say the love was mutual, which is not always the case with press secretaries. When his family announced his death Monday at age 73, every reporter who knew him personally, and many more who didn’t, had fond words for “Bear,” a nickname the portly, balding Brady embraced, and the era of media relations he represented.

He never conducted another press briefing after the shooting, but out of respect for him and what he had endured in service to his country, Brady retained the title of press secretary for the duration of the Reagan presidency. And since 2000, the White House briefing room has borne his name. Every president who steps to the podium to make a statement or take questions from reporters is speaking from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

The shooting left Brady with slurred speech, and with partial paralysis, which required him to use a wheelchair. Together with his wife, Sarah, they were a familiar presence at many Washington events, eagerly sought after by politicians of both parties. The cause they embraced was the prevention of gun violence, and it took more than a dozen years of their lobbying and cajoling and public speaking before Congress passed stricter controls on handguns and restrictions on assault weapons.

When President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law on November 30, 1993, he said the bill would never have passed Congress if it hadn’t been for the tireless efforts of Jim and Sarah Brady. Though neither ever renounced their Republican Party affiliation, they appeared together to tumultuous applause at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996. That same year, Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians.

We mourn the passing of a gentle bear of a man who took public policy seriously, but who could laugh at himself along with the vagaries of the politicians he served. When then-candidate Ronald Reagan, warring with environmentalists, insisted that trees produced more dangerous carbon dioxide than cars, Brady couldn’t resist crying out “Killer trees, killer trees!” when the campaign plane flew over a forest fire. He was grounded for a few days, but fortunately for us, and for politics, his irrepressible good humor could not be squelched.

Despite Nancy Reagan’s reservations about his rumpled demeanor, he got the job in the White House. He was thrilled, and so was the press. One of my fondest memories is Brady taking me into the Oval Office when the president wasn’t there, and showing me the glass jar filled with jellybeans. They weren’t campaign spin; they were for real, just like Brady.