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Politics as it should be practiced

Back when Richard Nixon was president, a Washington saloon five minutes’ walk from the White House named the Class Reunion was the go-to watering hole where press, politicians and real people could rub and bend elbows. To be candid, I was a regular at “the CR,” as it was called, but frankly went there more for the uniquely bipartisan conversation and good-natured needling, which were the hallmarks of the place.

One very popular Class Reunion regular was a Republican who, after handling the challenging job as press secretary for the failed 1980 presidential campaign of former Texas Gov. John Connally, went to work doing press for Ronald Reagan. Jim Brady’s irrepressible wit occasionally got him into trouble with some of the Reagan high command. After candidate Reagan had, erroneously, announced in Steubenville, Ohio, that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles,” Brady, as the Reagan campaign plane flew over an expanse of western forest, looked out the window and, in mock alarm, exclaimed: “Killer trees! Killer trees!”

Brady, a smart, honest, funny professional, had his dream job as White House press secretary stolen when, on March 30, 1981, the first of six bullets from the handgun of a would-be presidential assassin hit Brady in the head. The wounds sentenced him to live the remaining 33 years of his life partially paralyzed in a wheelchair with his speech slurred.

Why is this so relevant today? Because the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which Jim and his wife, Sarah, founded, still reflects the values and the strengths of its founding father. Jim Brady had no enemies list. He believed in and practiced politics as a matter of addition, not subtraction. Jim Brady’s politics sought and welcomed “converts” rather than hunting down and banishing “heretics.” He didn’t demonize you if you were on the Other Side. No, without compromising his own beliefs, Jim Brady could almost always find — with humor as his secret weapon — some common ground.

That spirit and that approach to politics were very much on display in September 2019 in the Brady Campaign’s response to Walmart’s announcement that the giant retailer would no longer sell ammunition for handguns and military-type assault rifles while also requesting that the chain’s customers not openly carry firearms in any of its stores. Brady Campaign President Kris Brown publicly congratulated Walmart for its action. The company has now totally ceased selling handguns as well. Brown urged supporters to “take a minute to send a thank-you message to Walmart.” Good politics is a matter of openly welcoming anyone who moves, no matter how imperfectly, to your ranks.

Jim Brady, who was dealt a rough hand by fate, lived — and eventually died — with pain as his constant unwelcome companion. Jim and Sarah’s determined struggle to pass the Brady Bill — requiring a handgun buyer to wait five days while his background check is conducted before the sale can be approved — was successful in 1993 with the support of President Bill Clinton, a historic achievement. To those who find such background checks inconvenient, think about the inconvenience of Jim Brady’s 33-year sentence to a wheelchair and thank him for the better politics he practiced.