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Jim Brady, 30 Years Later


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


SIMON: The place in which presidential press secretaries spar with reporters is called the James A. Brady Press Briefing Room. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is actually the James "S." Brady Press Briefing Room]

Unidentified Woman: This is a two-minute warning for the press briefing. This is a two-minute warning for the press briefing.

SIMON: Thirty years ago, when President Reagan had served just 69 days in office, he's leaving a Washington, D.C. hotel after a speech when John Hinckley, a mentally disturbed young drifter from Dallas, fired six shots at the president, trying to impress a movie star.


SIMON: He missed. One bullet ricocheted off of the president's car and hit him in the chest, close to his heart. Another hit Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. And one struck Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy in the stomach as he threw himself in front of President Reagan.

The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. He survived. The man who was known for his quick wit and warmth has relied on a wheelchair ever since. As you may hear, his speech is affected. We visited with the Bradys at their home along the Delaware shore.

James Brady sat under a throw blanket in a wing chair; Sarah Brady sat nearby but didn't speak for her husband or finish his sentences. James Brady is still funny, sunny, and friendly. The Bradys still flash smiles across the room at each other as they remember when they first met at a political cocktail party.

JAMES BRADY: She used to give away money to candidates, and I wanted to find the woman that gave away money to candidates.


SARAH BRADY: That's exactly right.

SIMON: Did you walk over and say something incredibly clever?

BRADY: Negative.

SIMON: So, what did you think of him when you met him?

BRADY: You know what, it was strange. We went and had dinner and I just knew right away. He just was - he was the first person I'd met who was so funny and so well educated and just...

BRADY: I was funny looking.

BRADY: You weren't funny looking. You were my handsome bear.

SIMON: James A. Brady was a political operative who helped run campaigns throughout Illinois, including, he winces to recollect, a losing congressional campaign for republican Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative writer. Mr. Brady came to Ronald Reagan's campaign after the convention in 1980. And then, after the inauguration, he served for 69 days at the White House.

BRADY: I had to get in there at 5:15 in the morning. And you've work these (unintelligible) too where if you got to go home after work in 12 hours, that was called working the half day.

SIMON: I know you've been asked to do this over the years, so forgive me in advance. What do you remember of that day 30 years ago?

BRADY: As little as possible. I've worked very hard at forgetting as much about that as I possibly can. But I've not been able to do it.

SIMON: It still comes back now and then?

BRADY: Oh, yes. But once you've been shot in the head, it's hard to forget.

BRADY: It was a rough day, that's for sure. Our son was only...

BRADY: I was there. It was rough for me.

BRADY: Yeah, it was rough on you.

SIMON: When you came back home, how - was that weeks or months after?

BRADY: Months, nine months, he was in the hospital.

SIMON: Nine months, yeah.

BRADY: How time flies when you're having fun.

SIMON: That must have been nine months of incredibly hard work.

BRADY: It was.

BRADY: But what did you call it? And he still works hard at physical therapy.

BRADY: Physical terrorism.


BRADY: And the people at work are your physical terrorists.

BRADY: But it's what keeps you going, don't you think, though?

BRADY: I don't know.

SIMON: When something like the January 8 shootings in Tucson occur, does that bring back thoughts to you always?

BRADY: Oh, did it. I mean, what the poor woman was going through...

BRADY: I think that was the thing that I could see it with Jim, he was just listening constantly and I was too. Because it was the first time, even though you relate to every shooting or all of us relate to anybody going through rough times, never was one so close to home.

SIMON: The two of you have - I mean, there's a piece of legislation named for you.

BRADY: Indeed there is, took a while to pass it.

BRADY: Seven years.

BRADY: But we did it.

SIMON: The Brady Law, which requires federal background checks on those who buy guns from licensed dealers, was endorsed by President Reagan and signed into law by President Clinton. It is named for Jim Brady, but symbolizes Sarah Brady's years of devotion to gun control, too.

Their son, Scott, was two years old at the time Jim Brady was shot. Scott Brady lives nearby and sees his parents often, but Jim Brady still looks at his son and thinks of good times that they missed.

BRADY: When we would go out in the backyard and throw the football back and forth. I feel guilty about not doing that with him.

SIMON: What, Sarah Brady, what do you think your son has learned from Jim and you?

BRADY: Compassion. Scott's one of the kindest, most compassionate kids I ever - well, kid - man. Caring, politically active. We raised a good liberal son.


SIMON: He's not a Republican, you mean?



BRADY: Nor are we anymore. Times change.

SIMON: Although their admiration for President Reagan is undimmed, John Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, has been at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. since 1982. But he's received increased privileges in recent years and can now stay for more than a week at a time with his family in Williamsburg, Virginia, where his mother moved to be closer to him.

Thirty years after the crime that took so much from them, the Bradys say their assailant's increasing freedoms can worry them.

BRADY: Soon he'll be up here.

SIMON: Do you think he'll come to Delaware?


BRADY: It's been rather a bother because Jim and I used to love to go to Williamsburg a lot. I went to William and Mary, which is there.

SIMON: It's very pretty, yeah.

BRADY: So, now every time I go, well, I always...

BRADY: You're going to run into him.

BRADY: No. Luckily, the U.S. Attorney's Office will...

SIMON: Let you know probably, right?

BRADY: We have the right to know when he goes, but I normally don't want to go, no, unless we're planning a trip there.

SIMON: We spent the afternoon with Jim and Sarah Brady. By the time we left, the sun was getting low behind the beach on which they live. Cocktail time, for a couple of vivacious and interesting people.

What do you look forward to now, like in the next week, the next month?

BRADY: Well, we just like getting together with our friends and eating, telling stories. Jim loves to tell a good story.

SIMON: I must say it's a privilege to get to know you both a little bit.

BRADY: Thank you, and don't be a stranger. You're always welcome back here. I don't actually have the cocktail flag flying.

SIMON: Jim and Sarah Brady at their home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Thirty years ago this month, March 30, 1981, Jim Brady was shot in the head by John Hinckley during an attempted assassination of former President Ronald Reagan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 3, 2014 at 10:00 PM MDT
We incorrectly refer to the name of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room as James A. Brady.
Corrected: August 3, 2014 at 10:00 PM MDT
We incorrectly refer to the name of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room as James A. Brady.