James Brady a Reagan aide who worked for gun control

James Brady: August 29th, 1940 - August 4th, 2014

James Brady, selected by president-elect Ronald Reagan to become his press secretary, talking to reporters after the announcement was made in Washington in 1981. Photograph: Walt Zebowski/AP Photo

James Brady, selected by president-elect Ronald Reagan to become his press secretary, talking to reporters after the announcement was made in Washington in 1981. Photograph: Walt Zebowski/AP Photo

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 10:18

James Brady, who has died aged 73, was the principal victim of John Hinckley’s attempt to kill American president Ronald Reagan. The bullet that lodged in the White House press secretary’s brain on March 30th, 1981, inflicted catastrophic neurological damage from which he never fully recovered.

However, it may have saved thousands of his countrymen’s lives. Though Brady’s injury left him severely disabled, the ease with which a disturbed young man could acquire a gun transformed him and his wife, Sarah, into tireless campaigners for more effective gun control. In 1993, in the face of enormous opposition, they were rewarded with the enactment of what became known as the Brady Law, requiring arms buyers to undergo mandatory computerised checks into their background.

Though the gun lobby watered down many of the Act’s original provisions, research showed that it had contributed to reversing a rising trend. Between 1994 and 1998, some 10,000 fewer Americans were gunned down than in the five years before the Brady Law came into force. It was a melancholy triumph for a man who had achieved a lifelong ambition when he became Reagan’s official spokesman after the 1980 election.

Obsessed with politics Brady had been obsessed with politics from his earliest years in his home town of Centralia, Illinois, where he was born the only child of Harold and Dorothy. As a student he had worked for one of the most influential senators to have come Illinois, Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen.

After graduating in 1962 he worked as spokesman for the Illinois State Medical Society (1966-68), a highly political job in an environment where medical bills are the greatest single cause of personal bankruptcy. After lobbying for the doctors he moved into the world of corporate PR, in part because he had also become active in the organisation of successive Republican election campaigns at state and national level.

In 1973, with the Watergate crisis gripping the nation, Brady moved to Washington to take up a series of political appointments until the victory of Jimmy Carter imposed a hiatus on his political career. He joined the staff of a Republican senator. Four years later, with the Iranian hostage crisis blighting the Carter presidency, Republican hopefuls started jockeying for the 1980 nomination. Brady’s amiable manner on Capitol Hill and his shrewd political reflexes had caught the attention of one of these contenders, John Connally, a man who had himself been seriously wounded by an assassin’s bullet – he was in the car with John F Kennedy when the president was killed in Dallas in 1963.

Brady worked for Connally until it became evident that the Reagan juggernaut was rolling over all his opponents. When Connally dropped out he transferred to the frontrunner’s camp. When Reagan roared into the White House, with 489 electoral votes out of 538, he asked Brady to take over as the presidential press secretary.

Brady had a sharp sense of humour. Reagan’s observation that “approximately 80 per cent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation” had been an embarrassment. After the election, reporters were flying over Northern California in the White House jet when an apparently hysterical Brady began pointing at the redwoods and gasping: “Killer trees, killer trees.” The press corps was sworn to secrecy but someone talked.

Six bullets A couple of months after taking office, the president’s address to an AFL-CIO trade union conference appeared to be another routine chore and indeed all went smoothly until Brady led the presidential group out of the Hilton hotel.

The first of Hinckley’s six bullets, an explosive .22 Devastator, hit the left side of his head and he fell unconscious. A further bullet lodged in Reagan’s lung.

After months of intense treatment Brady was able to retrieve most of his mental powers, but used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His designation as White House press secretary was maintained formally throughout the Reagan presidency.

In February 2000, as a tribute to his astonishing resilience and his continuing campaigns to extend gun controls and on behalf of the disabled, President Bill Clinton formally named the White House briefing room in his honour.

He is survived by his second wife, Sarah (née Kemp), their son, Scott, and his daughter, Melissa, from his first marriage.