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The Struggles Continue for Jim Brady Family : He Fights for Recovery While Wife Campaigns for Restrictions on Handguns

Times Staff Writer

The White House van that has been made available to accommodate his wheelchair had just brought Jim Brady home from a morning of physical therapy and horseback riding.

Helped by his young attendant, he walked into his den with the aid of a cane, his left arm limp at his side, his left leg dragging along in a brace.

“I’ve been put through my paces this morning. I had two terrorists on me,” he said, his speech slow, his manner breezy.

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Still Progressing

Terrorist is Brady’s word for therapist. It is not entirely a joke. During the more than five years since John W. Hinckley Jr. pumped a .22-caliber bullet into Brady’s brain during an attempt to assassinate President Reagan, much has been made of his “miraculous” recovery, which is still progressing. But the recovery has brought pain each and every day. Therapy sessions are especially difficult.

“Oh, God, is it painful,” said Brady, describing the tugging and hammering of limbs that had just transpired. “That lacks charm,” he pointed out.

For Sarah Brady, his wife, there have been enormous adjustments, sacrifices and terrors: waiting out three long operations that threatened his life; losing privacy to around-the-clock nurses; reversing, for a long time, the marital roles that had him as the stronger partner; not having any more children.

The Worst Ordeal

But for Sarah, the worst thing of all has been seeing her husband continually in pain.

“I think the ongoing thing, the only thing I find difficult now at all, is when I see Jim hurting,” she said. “He goes through a lot of pain, and that bothers me. Everything else has seemed, over time, to get better.”

Jim, whose brain injury still causes him to be “too candid,” as Sarah put it, admitted that, for him, there is anger.

“Yes, I’m angry,” he said. “The longer I go, the angrier I get.

“That little twit over there . . . " he said, beginning to talk about Hinckley, who lives several miles away in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill.

Jim Brady was asked if he agreed with the court’s opinion that Hinckley was insane and didn’t know what he was doing.

“I feel he’s insane,” he said. “But I feel he knew what he was doing.”

Sarah interjected, gently, to try to discourage her husband from this line of talk.

“I can’t get too high-profile in my anger,” Jim explained to a reporter. “You can’t spend a lot of time being angry. Those are negative vibes. And I have a hell of a lot of work ahead of me.”

As a measure of how fed up Jim Brady can get with his “terrorists,” he told the story of how he once accidentally dropped a 20-pound weight on the foot of one of them, “a direct hit,” he beamed. He still is in complete possession of the irreverent sense of humor that had endeared him to White House reporters. Occasionally, he is unable to control the tone of his speech, chuckling at times when he doesn’t mean to.

The injuries and pain have left the 45-year-old Brady with “the stamina of a daffodil,” as he put it, a situation that has cast uncertainty on the question of what he will do for a living after Reagan leaves the White House. He is still the White House press secretary, although he goes to the office just two days a week and attends to matters other than handling the press, such as answering the thousands of letters he has received each year since the shooting. He would be interested, he said, in “selling myself to the highest bidder,” perhaps opening a Washington office for some corporation.

As for Sarah, in the last five years friends have marveled at her strength, at the uncomplaining way in which she coped. She said she has had “no time to be depressed” and focuses on what she says was their tremendous luck: that Jim was moved swiftly to a top hospital, that they received a groundswell of support from friends and thousands of strangers and that the staggering medical bills are taken care of by the government and worker’s compensation.

“We were in the news and people rallied around us,” said Sarah, finding strength in what others might have considered a distraction. “That’s a lot more than most people who have a tragedy occur have. We had it all. You have to focus on that, rather than the anger.”

This is vintage positive-outlook Sarah, the woman described by her friends as a rock. Solid. Stable.

Sandra Butcher, a social worker who was with Sarah at George Washington Hospital the day of the shooting, remembered that friends and even members of Congress came streaming into the hospital, “crying and extremely agitated, and Sarah comforted them. She was the comforter.” Some have even said that it was Sarah who pulled Jim back through death’s door.

Through it all, Sarah never let on to the press or the public if she were angry or bitter, although she did “let off a lot of steam” to Butcher, the social worker recalled, particularly at her darkest moment: when Jim was first brought home from the hospital, a time when Butcher found her to be “overwhelmed at the reality of the total situation.”

An elevator had to be installed in the house. Nurses had to be brought in. And, meanwhile, there was 2-year-old Scott to be raised. Certainly their life style as a family was going to be unimaginably different, always.

“That brought the realization that yes, indeed, it was going to be a long-term rehabilitation,” said Sarah, 44. “That was difficult.”

Downplays Her Role

She downplays her role in Jim’s recovery, dismissing it as something anyone in that situation would do. Shortly after the shooting, she told CBS newsman Bill Plante, “I don’t think I ever knew what loving was until this happened.”

The thought that the marriage might not survive “never crossed my mind,” said Sarah, not even in the early days when his injuries seemed so grave. “I still loved Jim. Right in the beginning his mind was fine. I never saw anything at all that ever made me think he wasn’t the same person.”

Sarah does allow that both she and Jim have had jobs in which they relished a good fight, and maybe that has helped.

Before Sarah had Scott, now 7, she had worked for two members of Congress, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican National Committee.

“I think there’s something built into certain people, people who love fast-paced things, love battles and political campaigns, that the bigger the battle the more intently you throw yourself into it,” she said.

A New Fight

Now she is almost six months into a new battle, lobbying for stricter laws on gun sales.

In addition to lobbying more than 100 members of Congress, Sarah has flown around the country (white-knuckling it all the way) speaking to head-injury and gun-control groups, and she is the star of an advertising campaign mounted by Handgun Control, a leading Washington gun-control lobby.

“Help me fight the National Rifle Assn.,” the headline reads across the top of the most recent newspaper ad, which features a huge picture of Sarah and a plea for donations, which begins, “Five years ago, John Hinckley pulled a $29 revolver from his pocket and opened fire on a Washington street. He shot the President. He also shot my husband.”

Barbara Lautman, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control, said the group so far has spent $22,000 on this current campaign (Sarah has been featured in others) and that $34,000 has come in.

“We’re making money on it, which is pretty unusual,” said Lautman.

The NRA, which has its own ad campaign featuring a lot of all-American people with their guns, views Sarah Brady’s campaign as “an attempt to generate an emotional response to an issue that should be discussed intellectually,” said Richard Gardiner, the NRA’s assistant general counsel.

Sarah said that what makes her most angry at the NRA is that she meets members outside Washington who agree with what she wants: mandatory safety training, a waiting period and a background check before a person is allowed to purchase a firearm--propositions that the powerful NRA Washington lobby is fighting.

Even President Reagan, who took one of Hinckley’s bullets about an inch from his heart, is a member of the NRA.

“I guess in my mind, I kind of equate him (Reagan) with a lot of the NRA members, that they’re fine people and that maybe if they knew more about what their lobby was doing maybe they wouldn’t agree with the lobby itself,” said Sarah.

Gardiner disagreed with this.

“We see increasing numbers of members (joining the NRA),” said Gardiner. “Obviously, they know what’s going on. That’s causing them to join, not drop out. General fund raising has been doing as well as it ever has. Our members know what we’re doing and support it. If anything they don’t think we’re doing enough.”

Gardiner speculated that Sarah’s current priority, making safety training mandatory, would not have deterred Hinckley from his shooting spree, nor would a background check have turned up anything “because Hinckley had no criminal record and psychiatric records are confidential.” As for a waiting period, Hinckley had been through one before he bought a different gun in California, Gardiner said. And that gun was a .38-caliber handgun that weapons experts believe would have killed Brady, Reagan and possibly one of the other two men shot, given the same entry into the bodies of the weaker .22-caliber bullets Hinckley used.

But Sarah feels that somewhere within a waiting period, a background check and safety training, someone would have realized that Hinckley was ill and up to no good. So her fight goes on. But she said she doesn’t see her lobbying activities as catharsis.

“I’ve never felt angry, or I’ve tried not to,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve repressed it, or . . . I just right away decided that I know Jim wouldn’t have wanted me to be angry and that we had to get on with our lives and we were lucky.”

Thoughts of Hinckley only occur, she said, when his name occasionally appears in the news.

“I just think of him,” she said, “as a sick young man who is locked away in a mental hospital. I don’t think looking back on that part of it is helpful at all.”

Sarah actually had worked on handgun control legislation in Congress, before she even met Jim. And she has become involved now, she said, “because I thought maybe I can really help on this.”

Sarah is not anti-gun, she hastened to point out. The daughter of a late FBI agent, she has fired a gun and been around guns, and “I don’t want to take away other people’s right to have one for protection, as long as they know how to use it, how to store it and how to take care of it.”

Jim said her lobbying is good because, “it’s better than having her around the home.”

Sarah explained to a reporter, “I hope you know this is Jim’s sense of humor.”

When Sarah tweaks Jim on something, he shakes his fist at her, a la Jackie Gleason on “The Honeymooners,” and utters Gleason’s famous husbandly question, “Do you want to go to the moon?”

To a reporter, Jim said, “Some day if you can’t find her, check people that you know are on the moon. I bet there are some editors you know there.”

Humor is a staple of the Brady household.

Jim recently gave a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina coastal campus, and he recalled that the gist of what he told the graduates was, “to persevere and maintain a sense of humor. If you can still laugh at yourself, you’re not doing too poorly.”


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