Through Trying Times, James Brady Never Lost Trademark Wit

The former Reagan press secretary, who passed away Monday, was known for his sharp sense of humor.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 16:  Former White House Press Secretary under the Reagan Administration James Brady visits the White House Briefing Room, which named after him, with his wife Sarah June 16, 2009 in Washington, DC. Brady was shot in the head and became permanently disabled during the assassination attempt on former president Ronald Reagan in 1981.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 4, 2014, 1:05 p.m.

The same wicked sense of hu­mor that al­most cost him his dream job is what is most fondly re­membered about James Brady, who died Monday at age 73, 33 years after he was ser­i­ously wounded in the at­temp­ted as­sas­sin­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Re­agan. Even in the worst mo­ments of his gruel­ing and al­most-mi­ra­cu­lous re­cov­ery from the shoot­ing, Brady nev­er lost the bit­ing wit that amazed his doc­tors and com­for­ted his friends.

Back in 1980, though, it al­most de­railed his ca­reer. Shortly after Re­agan con­tro­ver­sially in­sisted that the vast ma­jor­ity of air pol­lu­tion was caused by ve­get­a­tion, the can­did­ate’s plane flew over a forest fire. “Killer trees,” pro­claimed the imp­ish Brady, loud enough to be heard by re­port­ers on the plane. When The New York Times re­por­ted his out­burst, the ir­ate cam­paign hier­archy yanked Brady off the plane. He was later re­in­stated, but his chances to be named White House press sec­ret­ary seemed doomed.

Nor was he helped in get­ting that job by per­sist­ent re­ports that Nancy Re­agan didn’t think the ro­tund, bald­ing, wise-crack­ing Brady was hand­some enough or smooth enough to be the pres­id­ent’s chief spokes­man on tele­vi­sion. Those around the pres­id­ent-elect also ques­tioned his Re­agan bona fides. He had, after all, been a late ar­rival to the fold, join­ing Re­agan’s team only after John Con­nolly’s cam­paign ended. But Brady per­severed, serving as the spokes­man for the trans­ition and suf­fer­ing si­lently as Re­agan offered the press sec­ret­ary post to three oth­er people. All three turned it down and, fi­nally, it was giv­en to Brady.

To try to counter the real­ity that Brady had not been the first choice, Re­agan per­son­ally made the an­nounce­ment. But he didn’t like one of the first ques­tions: “Do you think that Brady is good-look­ing enough?” The pres­id­ent-elect bristled, de­scrib­ing him­self as “an ir­ate hus­band” un­happy with the stor­ies about Nancy. But then he ad­ded, “Nancy couldn’t be more de­lighted and thinks he’s ab­so­lutely hand­some.”

One per­son who def­in­itely saw Brady as good-look­ing was his wife of 41 years, Sarah Brady. Dur­ing an in­ter­view with NPR in 2011, James Brady re­called the couple’s first date, say­ing, “I was funny-look­ing.” Sarah im­me­di­ately pro­tested. “You wer­en’t funny-look­ing. You were my hand­some bear,” she said, us­ing his child­hood nick­name, one that was favored by friends for the rest of his life.

Sarah said Brady’s sense of hu­mor was one of the things that first at­trac­ted her to him. And it cer­tainly was something that he used to great ef­fect to keep a raven­ous polit­ic­al press corps at bay. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton re­called that when he re­named the White House brief­ing room the James S. Brady Brief­ing Room in 2000. “Jim Brady,” said Clin­ton, “was the man who, when mem­bers of Con­gress pro­posed to give them­selves a $50-a-day tax de­duc­tion, re­spon­ded with a press re­lease that was one word long: ‘Stu­pid.’ “

Friends doubt that Brady could have emerged as well as he did from the shoot­ing had it not been for his will­ing­ness to make jokes dur­ing the 239 days he spent at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity Hos­pit­al. Ac­cord­ing to Del Quentin Wil­ber’s 2011 book about the as­sas­sin­a­tion at­tempt, Raw­hide Down, doc­tors had giv­en Brady only a 50 per­cent chance of sur­viv­al. Dur­ing his time at the hos­pit­al, Wil­ber wrote, he had three ad­di­tion­al sur­ger­ies “to pre­vent blood clots from reach­ing his lungs and heart and to stop leak­age of spin­al flu­id. He suffered from pneu­mo­nia, fevers and oth­er in­fec­tions. Par­tially para­lyzed, he en­dured hun­dreds of hours of ex­cru­ci­at­ing phys­ic­al ther­apy…” But des­pite all that, “he nev­er lost his trade­mark wit.” To one re­port­er in 2006, he said, “When life gives you lem­ons, you make lem­on­ade. I have sev­er­al stands around here.”

Dr. Richard Cytow­ic, who stud­ied Brady’s case for a cov­er story for The New York Times Magazine in 1981, said hos­pit­al staffers quickly learned that Brady “has a sharp, caustic wit, likes put­ting people on and may be heard chuck­ling after they leave the room. Mr. Brady’s sense of hu­mor is the first thing most of those who have worked with him closely com­ment on.”

Brady called his phys­ic­al ther­apy “phys­ic­al ter­ror­ism.” But he loved en­ter­tain­ing old friends in his hos­pit­al room with much jok­ing and “singing old Illinois col­lege songs,” ac­cord­ing to Cytow­ic. When friends wer­en’t there, he once joked, “I en­ter­tain my­self. I think I’m a hoot.”

He was even proud to be over­weight, cred­it­ing his love of food. As an Eagle Scout, he told re­port­ers, “My group was in­to eat­ing. While every­one else was try­ing to climb a moun­tain, we were back try­ing to cook beef Wel­ling­ton in a re­flect­or oven.” And nobody laughed louder in 1981 when the Grid­iron Club had a re­port­er por­tray­ing him singing to Nancy Re­agan, “She’s Grown Ac­cus­tomed to My Face.”

The fact is that Wash­ing­ton had grown ac­cus­tomed over the last three dec­ades to see­ing Jim Brady in his wheel­chair at events like the an­nu­al Grid­iron Din­ner. Sarah spoke for many here when she said in 2006, “He has been for me the most fun and the greatest in­spir­a­tion I have, no mat­ter what.”

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