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Remembering James Brady, 73, spokesman for Reagan and gun control

August 4, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
James Brady, the White House press secretary who became a gun control activist after being wounded in a Reagan assassination attempt, has died at the age of 73. Judy Woodruff remembers him with another former White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, as well as writer and Brady biographer Mollie Dickenson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We close tonight remembering former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, who died today. He was severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and subsequently became a leading advocate for gun control.

Ronald Reagan was two months into his presidency when John Hinckley Jr. drew a $29 dollar handgun outside a Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. He wounded the president, Brady, a Secret Service agent, and a Washington police officer.

Reagan and his guards fully recovered, but the .22-caliber bullet exploded into Brady’s forehead and left him partially paralyzed. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, but with his wife, Sarah, campaigned for a gun control law known as the Brady Bill.

President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993, helping create the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that remains in use today.

Last year, the Bradys spoke to us about the struggle for new gun control legislation.

JAMES BRADY, Former White House Press Secretary: We want to stop the carnage, all the killing that’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sarah Brady also said she’s seen a difference in the gun lobby itself.

SARAH BRADY, Wife of JAMES BRADY: They have entrenched themselves more deeply, I will say that, and are much bolder today than they were 20 or 25 years ago.

JAMES BRADY: Discouragement is a temporary thing. You just saddle up and get back into the fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Brady was 73 years old.

For a closer look at the life of James Brady, we are joined by former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who served under President Clinton. And Mollie Dickenson, she’s the author of “Thumbs Up: The Life and Courageous Comeback of White House Press Secretary Jim Brady.”

And it’s good to see you both. Thank you.

Mollie Dickenson, as you know, as we know, I covered the White House of Ronald Reagan. I was there the day Jim Brady was shot, the president was shot. We’re going talk about that horrible moment just in a second. But first remind us who Jim Brady was before he was hurt.

MOLLIE DICKENSON, Author, “Thumbs Up: The Life and Courageous Comeback of White House Press Secretary Jim Brady”: Well, Jim Brady was one of the most attractive people you could ever want to meet. He was the man you wanted to be next to at any party.

He and Sarah both, so down to earth, so kind also, and both very funny, but Jim was known for his humor. And he never lost his sense of humor. And he never lost his political smarts either. He saw the world in real time, and he understood the world, and he was a great aide to Reagan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spent a lot of time working on your book, talking about the courageous journey, as you described it, of Jim and Sarah Brady. It was a tough comeback for them, because he almost died.

MOLLIE DICKENSON: Yes, he did. He took a bullet that went from here to just above his ear. And it did a lot of damage, but didn’t shoot away the essential Jim Brady.

And they both have been extremely brave in facing this, and then to take on the gun lobby, which gets more and more difficult all the time, as Sarah just said in your setup there.


And, Joe Lockhart, you, of course, were working a president, two presidents later, Bill Clinton. But you got to know Jim Brady through the gun control…

JOE LOCKHART, Former White House Press Secretary: Well, we got to know him through all of the work they did, both by passing the Brady Bill and then in the failed efforts, you know, after Columbine, which was very frustrating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The shooting, the high school shooting.

JOE LOCKHART: The shooting.

And, you know, I think at the time, it was extraordinary that we got something done on gun control, the Brady Bill. But if you look now, 20 years, 30 years later, it’s more extraordinary. We — the country’s live through Newtown, where children, you know, an amazing number of children, and we couldn’t do anything.

But Jim and Sarah — we shouldn’t forget Sarah — she is the not-so-secret weapon in that team — they got it done with a lot of political help, but they were the ones who got it done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk about how — what it was like to work with him during that period, because, as we said, he was mostly in a wheelchair. But he was active in this campaign.

JOE LOCKHART: Yes, I — the word is inspiring.

You know, Jim had physical limitations. And he had trouble speaking. But you could tell there was something in there. And the most amazing thing was, most people would react bitterly to this. He had worked his whole career. And a month into having the job he wanted his whole life, it was taken away from him.

And what he did was, he turned that into positive energy. And he was funny and irreverent. And the tougher the moment got, the more positive he became and he was just an amazing and inspiring guy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mollie, how was he — why was he able to do that?  As Joe said, many people, you could understand why they would be bitter.

MOLLIE DICKENSON: It’s in his constitution. It’s the kind of man he was to begin with.

And with the help of Sarah, who — they’re very much alike, both of them. They both love life and love jokes and laughter. I wanted to point out that the FBI told me that the bullet that hit Jim in the brain would have had Reagan had it not hit Jim.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because of where he was.

MOLLIE DICKENSON: Yes. And, also, the gun that John Hinckley used was illegally bought, because he lied on his application to buy it at that time.


MOLLIE DICKENSON: Probably wouldn’t have any trouble today, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, before this, Joe, Jim Brady wasn’t somebody who — he was a Republican. He worked for a number of Republican officeholders in Washington, working on the Reagan campaign as press secretary. This wasn’t an issue that was high for him, that he spent a lot of time on.

JOE LOCKHART: No, not an issue that — in fact, we weren’t debating this issue in 1981.

You know, it wasn’t at the forefront of the congressional agenda. And, you know, it shouldn’t be lost that, as a Republican and in his circles with Republican friends, as the country became more partisan, he lost friendships because of his willingness to go out and take a stand on this.

But, you know, the nice part about Jim as I met him later in his life was, he didn’t care. The country was changing. We were becoming more partisan, more intractable. Jim didn’t care. He spoke the truth. He was incapable of not speaking the truth. And it was really refreshing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did he deal with that, with — Mollie, you spent a lot of time with him.

MOLLIE DICKENSON: He just had that ability to deal with anything.

I think even before he was so gravely wounded, he was willing to say exactly what he thought. Like, I’m sure you remember the killer trees incident, when Reagan went on and on about how trees were more dangerous than fresh air. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That they from supposed to be a danger to the environment.



MOLLIE DICKENSON: And Jim didn’t care. He — flying over a forest fire one day, he yelled out killer trees, killer trees.


MOLLIE DICKENSON: And he was suspended for a week by the Reagan campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there were some in the campaign who felt that he was dangerous to have around because of comments like that.

MOLLIE DICKENSON: But he was very wise.

JOE LOCKHART: But he did serve, I think, as a really useful model for a lot of press secretaries who came — particularly for me, which was, even in the toughest of times, it was better to answer something with a joke, with good humor, particularly a joke at your own expense.

And, you know, I tell people, without a doubt, the best day I had in the White House was the day that President Clinton renamed the Briefing Room in his honor. And you stand there at the podium, and it is just to your right. And I think every one who has had the job looks at that and understands that you have got to hold yourself to Jim Brady’s standard, which is very hard to meet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What you said about his sense of humor, I talked today to Lou Cannon, who covered the Reagans for The Washington Post for a long time. And he was remembering the killer trees comment and how much the press corps enjoyed him, which isn’t true of all press secretaries, Joe Lockhart.


MOLLIE DICKENSON: And when I went to the White House to interview Reagan for the book, I said, I’m going to see Reagan today, Jim. What should I do?  And he said, “Oh, so you’re going interview his couth-ship (ph), are you?”


MOLLIE DICKENSON: He always had…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mollie Dickenson and Joe Lockhart, remembering Jim Brady, thank you both.

JOE LOCKHART: Thank you.