American road trip stories don’t always translate well to the broader reading public, either domestic or foreign. A lot of people prefer, for example, to fly: you reach your destination more quickly, and can get on with the business of having a holiday or selling advertising or whatever your racket is more quickly. Some countries have vast and reliable passenger rail networks instead of highways. And few countries have a system of roads which grew from those first tenuous connections of the 1900s and 1910s into the sometimes amazing and historic routes through sometimes dull, but frequently breathtakingly rich landscapes which America enjoys. It is even hard to imagine a landscape of mountains, valleys, rolling hills and canyons if all that you’ve ever known is the flat regularity of plains, stretching for 500 miles in every direction.
In Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, author Matthew Algeo has happened upon a tale that weaves history, politics, and American nostalgia in a particularly fetching pattern. Harry S Truman of Independence, Missouri, 33rd President of the United States, had stepped down from the Presidency only six months earlier, on 20 January 1953. Yet in June he and wife Bess took a road trip back to Washington D.C. The reasons for the trip, which was also to include a stop in New York City, were partly political and partly financial. With Eisenhower now in office, Truman was one of two living ex-Presidents, but unlike Herbert Hoover (who was quite well-off), Truman had no fixed source of income, apart from his Army pension which he had earned in the Great War. Refusing for the rest of his life to sully the office of the Presidency (as he saw it) by making money off the back of his celebrity status, Truman was in something of a bind when it came to money. Part of the reason for his trip was to lobby friends in Congress to establish a modest Presidential pension. But part of the journey was just for the sheer fun of it. Having shrugged off the cares of such monumental responsibilities, who would not have been tempted to cry: “road trip!”
One of the extraordinary parts of the tale is the trip itself. Despite the history of assassination attempts on sitting Presidents, Truman retired without Secret Service protection (it wasn’t made mandatory until after the Kennedy assassination, and LBJ had to cajole Bess Truman into accepting it for Harry), to a private house at a known address, with only the occasional security provided by a lone Independence, Missouri beat cop. But the policeman wouldn’t be coming on the road trip in the shiny new black 1953 Chrysler New Yorker. It would just be Harry at the wheel, and Bess navigating, keeping track of gasoline purchases, and urging her lead-footed husband to slow down. Think of that: a former American President and his wife decided to drive across the country, unescorted and unaided, eating where they liked and when they liked, and staying at many times along the way in ordinary roadside motels. It’s something that had never happened before, and would never happen again.
Algeo maps the journey by day in his text, and he assembled a healthy chunk of his research by following the same route and staying in as many of the same places as the Trumans did (at least, as much as is now possible). What becomes clear is that the landscape of American roads, diners, and motels has changed considerably in sixty years, and not always for the better. But Algeo generally avoids dwelling on the bittersweet temptations of nostalgia, and concentrates on the voyage at hand. The Trumans had hoped to travel anonymously across the country (perhaps a naïve expectation), but they were often recognized, as should surprise no one. Harry was often cheerful and candid with the press when they caught up with him, even when they were imposing during his holiday. But, more significantly for an ex-President who had left office with a startlingly low approval rating of 22%, many of the people they encountered were positive, friendly, and seemingly thrilled to see him. It could have just been the brushes with a famous man that Americans seem to relish which made them seem friendly, but Truman was, as Algeo points out, a man who could make small talk with almost anyone. His visits to Washington DC and New York City were important stories covered in all the papers. In short, Truman found out that hard way that he had ceased to be just a politician from Missouri: he was a celebrity.
There is no single incident which makes up the core of this book: it is literally a diary of the voyage out and then home again to Independence. But Matthew Algeo has made certain that we learn a lot along the way, even if we do so painlessly and without being aware of the fact. Personally, as a reader who grew to maturity in the areas over which Truman’s shadow still paces vigorously, I find myself wanting to repeat the clichéd school trip to the Truman Library in Independence, the home on Delaware Street, and even the unpleasant strip-mall ugliness of Truman Corners near the staggeringly mis-named burg of Grandview, where the Truman farm lands once stood, but by the time I was in my teens was composed of a shabby second-run cinema and some disreputable shops (I’ve no idea what’s out there now). I want to trace over some of the ground trodden by Harry S Truman. American politics could do with some more people like him, although his like may well be gone for good.
And, most of all, I really find myself wanting to take a road trip. Five stars. Highly recommended.
Originally reviewed on 19 March 2014.
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