Ray Elias finds himself at the epicenter of history.
The year, 1965, and anti-Vietnam War sentiment is running high on college and university campuses.
As a University of Chicago undergraduate, Ray’s once-fervent support for friend Hubert Humphrey dissipates as the vice president travels the county defending a war they both personally abhor. Ray’s opinion of the Democratic statesman is further eroded with the killing of a childhood friend in Vietnam who enrolled in the military after high school to “defend America against communism.”
“That didn’t make any sense to me,” Ray says. “How could fighting a guerrilla war in a jungle 10,000 miles away protect the United States against Russia or China?”
Humphrey and Me, a fictionalized account of local author Stuart H. Brody’s relationship with the vice president, is a tale of youthful ideals clashing with real world conditions. Heroes become villains and eventually just men with imperfections and shortcomings that render them human.
While the friendship with Humphrey is central to the book, there are other important relationships Ray must negotiate and, eventually, comes to terms with: his father, Jim, whose demanding demeanor seems singularly focused on his son; and his girlfriend, Ruth, whose passion and idealism, while a mirror to Ray’s, are tempered by reality.
All three characters—Humphrey, Jim, Ruth—play pivotal roles in Ray’s evolution. Once enveloped in idealistic absolutism, Ray comes to understand the importance of compassion and empathy and is willing to embrace truth. Not only about others, but himself.
While the majority of Ray’s young life is a mirror of Brody’s own, scenes from the character’s time at the University of Chicago are not, although Brody did attend that institution and does have a law degree.
Also, chapters that involve Humphrey, then-President Lyndon Johnson and Humphrey’s wife Muriel are fictionalized. But they are essential in showing the extent of Johnson’s coarseness and the real anguish Humphrey suffered as a result of his own character flaw—cowardice in the face of an overbearing force.
“I’ve read every book on Hubert Humphrey,” Brody said, relaxed in the living room of his Patagonia home. “The real story of this man had not been told. The only way I could do it was to make him a co-protagonist.”
In reality, the issues that Ray confronts in “Humphrey and Me” are not unlike those Americans wrestle with today. Social injustice, racism, labor disputes, nuclear proliferation – decades have passed since Hubert Humphrey, called by many as “the last great true liberal,” took a stand on these issues. And that is why—perhaps—the book is so poignant. We still struggle with them.
Certainly, Brody has contended with issues of trust, the foundation of all relationships, personally and professionally.
“Often without the artist really knowing what they are doing, they are working through profound emotional issues they have wrestled with, consciously or unconsciously, their entire life,” Brody said.
Bringing those emotions out as they relate to forgiveness, empathy and compassion takes a great deal of self-reflection and maturity. It involves breaking through barriers, which comes with time.
While Ray and the author’s life experiences are a braid of fact and fiction, there are scenes in “Humphrey and Me” relating to the human condition in 1960s America that occur today.
Thursday is current events night at the Elias home. Which means Ray and sister Diane must present a contemporary happening over dinner and analyze it to their father’s satisfaction. Diane’s report is on a bridge being built in Michigan. Her father smiles. Ray’s report is about four black girls killed in a bombing at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. Their mother gasps in horror, devastated. Later, Ray observes and concludes about racism: “No blacks would ever put four white girls in a church and burn them alive.”
This was the type of injustice that drew the fictional Ray—and real-life Brody —to Humphrey. Humphrey tilted at the windmills of injustice. Known for his oratorical skills, Humphrey was a central figure in the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Civil Rights Act, both of 1964. He worked with Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. And he served on the National Advisory Council of the Peace Corps.
Brody holds dear an inscribed portrait of the vice president: “To Stuart Brody. My campaign manager and good friend. With thanks. Hubert Humphrey.”
Politics was a stage Hubert Humphrey believed could make the biggest impact for Americans. That’s why Ray—and Brody—signed on.
And in the end, the reader recognizes the essence of this book caught in this one line: “Human nature lies most compelling in our capacity to understand our own failings and forgive the flaws of others.”
Stuart H. Brody is an adjunct professor teaching ethics at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.