Many years ago, when I was in college, a professor told me that some people chose to change the world while others were chosen by the world to change it.
James Brady fit the second category. Brady, who died Monday at the age of 73, didn't set out to become the country's best-known champion of gun control. If he hadn't been shot during an assassination attempt against President Reagan, we'd simply remember him as Reagan's affable, roly-poly press secretary.
But now we remember him as much more than that, because of the way Brady engaged the issue that fate dealt him. And that's the part my professor left out.
Yes, history chose Jim Brady for a role in our great national drama about firearms and their regulation. But his lines were always his own, and so was the decision to keep acting even as the play wore on.
And he's not the only one. Rep.
Beyond the world of guns, meanwhile, Michael J. Fox became a tireless spokesman for Parkinson's research and care after he was diagnosed with the disease. And
Johnson didn't choose to become a symbol of AIDS, any more than Jim Brady chose his status as a gun-control icon. But, like Brady, Johnson embraced the new role he was given. And lucky for us. At the time, most Americans regarded AIDS as a disease reserved for gays and drug addicts. It couldn't happen to someone like Magic Johnson.
But it did, and Johnson never shied away from it. He spoke openly about his contraction of HIV and the ways that others could avoid it. Johnson also played in the
Likewise, James Brady transformed his personal travails into a force for social change. But he did so under conditions that the rest of us can't imagine.
Shot in the forehead, Brady spent most of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He suffered memory loss, slurred speech and depression. "I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and — damn it — I need help going to the bathroom," he told Congress, testifying on behalf of background checks for gun buyers.
But Brady and his wife soldiered on, often in vain but with occasional victories, such as when
Meanwhile, Brady had to withstand criticism from old friends and associates who didn't like his new role. By the 1990s, Jim and Sarah Brady had become Democrats, but they continued to maintain old friendships with Republicans, including Reagan, who wrote a now-famous op-ed endorsing the Brady Bill in 1991.
You can debate the effect of this measure, and of subsequent gun-control legislation. But you still have to admire the brave way that James Brady shouldered his assignment from history, even after his body was shattered. "You've got to persevere," Brady told a reporter in 1986. We should all be grateful he did.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at