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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