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Recalling When Jim Brady Was Phyllis Schlafly's Campaign Manager

By John Gizzi   |   Tuesday, 05 Aug 2014 08:32 AM

The news yesterday that James Brady died at age 73 prompted an outpouring of memorial comments for the onetime White House press secretary who nearly lost his life in a 1981 attempted assassination of his boss, President Ronald Reagan.

Speaking at the White House Briefing Room that is named for Brady, current press secretary Josh Earnest praised his predecessor as "somebody who showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about."

With wife Jill, Vice President Joe Biden recalled Brady from his days as press
secretary to "my former colleague Republican Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware" and
hailed him as "one of America's finest public servants."

Admired by Democrats such as Biden, and Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as a national symbol for strict gun control, Brady will surely be recalled as a much-liked press secretary to Republicans such as Roth, Reagan and former Texas Gov. John Connally (for whose 1980 presidential campaign he worked until it fizzled, whereupon Brady joined Reagan's).

But one campaign that is likely to be given little attention or tributes to Brady was a U.S. House race he managed in the 23rd District in Illinois in 1970. That was the year Brady ran the strong-but-losing bid for Congress of a Republican named Phyllis Schlafly.

Years before she became a national figure as the force behind the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly, mother of five who had earned a master's degree from Harvard, was already established as a conservative leader in the Prairie State.

She was elected president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women. Schlafly was also known nationally as the author of the best-selling "A Choice, Not an Echo," which made the case for conservatism and Barry Goldwater's candidacy for president in 1964.

In 1970, Schlafly opposed then-Democratic Rep. George Shipley in the 23rd District, which then included her hometown of Alton. In her corner was the same firm that managed Gov. Richard Ogilvie's successful statewide campaign in 1968 — which dispatched Brady to oversee the Schlafly campaign. But even with Brady's expertise, more than 4,000 volunteers, and a six-figure budget, Schlafly lost, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Recalling the campaign to this reporter many years later, Schlafly said, "Jim lived in our guest house and did a fine job."

On Aug. 2, 2006, six living former White House press secretaries joined then-President George Bush as the briefing room was shut down for a much-needed overhaul. Sitting in a wheelchair beside the president was the man for whom the briefing room is named — Jim Brady. At one point, I remarked to the late correspondent Helen Thomas that Brady, in an earlier incarnation as a political gun-for-hire, had managed the campaign of nationally known conservative Schlafly when she ran for Congress 36 years earlier.

"I don't believe it," said a surprised Thomas, clearly unable to accept the fact that the best-known advocate of gun control in the nation could have run the campaign for the Eagle Forum head.

Undaunted by Helen Thomas' skepticism, I went up to Brady. When I told him of Thomas' disbelief about his past, Brady grinned, turned his head to Thomas, and settled the issue. "Helen," he called out, "It's true! It's true!"

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