Right off, I have to admit that Harry Truman is one of my favorite presidents. Not just because he ordered the integration of the Armed Forces, or because he was the first president to submit a voting-rights agenda to Congress, or not even because he fired that loony-tune General Douglas MacArthur for suggesting that it was the Army that ruled the country and not vice versa—but because he was a regular, standup guy who didn't have to set up a federal commission to understand the Constitution.
Now along comes Matthew Algeo's "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" (Chicago Review Press, 2009, $24.95), the engaging story of Truman's decision in 1953—the summer after he left the White House—to take his wife Bess on a 19-day road trip from their hometown of Independence, Mo., to New York and then back again, traveling the entire way in their Chrysler New Yorker.
There was no Secret Service protection along for the ride because that courtesy was not extended to former presidents until 1961. Truman did not have federal funds for the trip because ex-presidents were not given pensions until 1958, and that occurred primarily because of Truman's eye-opening road trip.
When Truman left office, he had to take out a bank loan to get by. Faced with bleak prospects, he did what a lot of unemployed men of that era did: He hit the road in search of adventure. His explanation was simple: "I like roads. I like to move."
Algeo has done a first-rate job of piecing together the trip. There are two ways to look at this book: as a means to travel back to a time when there were no Red or Blue states, or crazed talk-radio commentators, when an ex-president could express concern over a penny-a-gallon gasoline hike (can you imagine paying 27 cents a gallon); or as the type of road trip that many of us dream about but never undertake. Either way this book delivers a fascinating reading experience.
Harry and Bess stuck mostly to two-lane highways, stopping at diners and country kitchens for lunch and dinner. At the end of their first day, they pulled into a Shell station on the outskirts of Decatur, Ill., and asked the attendant to recommend a good motel. "We'd never stayed at one, and we wanted to try it out and see if we like it," Harry later explained.
When they checked into the motel, no one recognized them, not even the desk clerk. However, within minutes the parking lot was filled with newspaper reporters, photographers and local townspeople. Fearful that something could happen to Harry and Bess, the police chief assigned two police officers to keep an eye on things, an action that irritated Harry, who protested, "I don't need any protection."
After the first pictures hit the newspapers, the Trumans were mobbed by people everywhere they went, though the mobbing was gentle by today's standards. Whenever Harry and Bess asked for a little breathing room, they usually got it. One exception occurred the day they were traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and were pulled over by a state trooper for blocking the left lane.
"I just couldn't believe that I had pulled this man over," the trooper later said. "I told him that he had done wrong and he said he didn't realize it—that it wasn't intentional." The trooper gave Truman a lecture and the former president smiled the entire time. Before the trooper walked away, Bess leaned over and said, "Don't worry, Trooper, I'll watch him." Truman was too much of a gentleman to tell the trooper the truth: He was holding up traffic because Bess had made him promise not to drive faster than 55 mph. Later, asked about why he hadn't given Harry a ticket, the patrolman echoed the sentiments of many Americans when he said, "Maybe some other presidents, but not Harry Truman."
Today it is difficult to explain America's love affair with Harry Truman.
During the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, he caused a stir when he said that anyone who voted for Nixon "ought to go to hell." Voters took Harry's advice that year. In the 1968 election, however, they didn't and, as we now know, America promptly went to hell.
Harry Truman did not have a politically correct bone in his body, but that was what set him apart from nearly everyone else in American politics. With this excellent road story, Algeo has helped preserve the essence of a great man.