On March 30, 1981, then-White House press secretary Jim Brady asked one of his aides to accompany President Ronald Reagan for a speech at the Washington Hilton. At the last moment, however, Brady himself went with Reagan.
It was a choice that would forever alter the life of the witty, self-deprecating man whose burly build led to the nickname “Bear.” On the way out of the hotel, Reagan was attacked by a mentally ill assassin, John Hinckley, who got off six shots with a .22 revolver. One bullet hit Reagan in the lower left lung, but he ultimately made a full recovery. Brady wasn’t as fortunate. The bullet that entered his head shattered into more than two dozen fragments, several of which penetrated his brain. The neurosurgeon who operated on him didn’t think he would make it.
Brady, who died on Aug. 4 at age 73, somehow managed to survive that catastrophic injury, which left him partially paralyzed and damaged the area of the brain that controls speech. With the help of his wife, Sarah, he became a powerful symbol in the gun control movement. Eight years after being shot, Brady rolled his wheelchair into the U.S. Capitol to testify in favor of legislation to require background checks and impose waiting periods on firearm purchasers, in an effort to thwart criminals and mentally ill people such as Hinckley. “I know that many members of Congress don’t want to stand up for the Brady Bill because of all the aggravation they’d get from the gun lobby,” Brady said. “Well, their aggravation is minimal compared to the aggravation I face every day, every minute of my life.”
It took several years, but the legislation ultimately passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Here are six things you might not know about Brady:
- Brady was a star athlete in high school, lettering in five sports.
- To put himself through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he sold encyclopedias door-to-door and collected empty soda bottles to redeem the deposits.
- After Brady worked for Reagan’s winning 1980 presidential campaign as director of public affairs and research, Reagan appointed him White House press secretary, despite Nancy Reagan’s counsel for a youthful, telegenic figure. Brady made light of that in his first briefing appearance, telling reporters, “I come before you today as not just another pretty face, but out of sheer talent.”
- After the shooting, Brady remained in the hospital for nine months and then had to endure additional operations and painful physical therapy each day in an effort to regain some function. It took him a year to even attempt to write his name; the first try came out “JIMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”
- After his brain injury, Brady struggled with depression but never lost his trademark wit. He once described the legislative process in Washington as so slow and dysfunctional that “it takes two years to make Minute Rice.”
- On the 30th anniversary of the shooting in 2011, Brady returned to the White House to speak with President Barack Obama. He wore a blue bracelet inscribed with the name of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who had been shot in the head a few weeks earlier in an assassination attempt that bore an unsettling similarity to the one Brady survived.
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