Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo

5. Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure
The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
by Matthew Algeo
nonfiction, 2009
Kindle book, 3
second book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge 2012
finished, 1/24/12

Just look at those two! Don't they seem like the happiest couple ever?! When Harry Truman was once offered the opportunity of seeing a private screening of the (then) new Marilyn Monroe movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Harry declined saying that "real gentlemen prefer gray hair." Some difference from these days when women 'of a certain age' do everything possible to look younger. Bess Truman was often described with an adjective rarely used now, 'matronly,' defined in the dictionary as
like or characteristic of a matron, esp. in being dignified and staid and typically associated with having a large or plump build
Not many women today would appreciate such a description, let alone be satisfied looking that way. Bess was a woman who was comfortable in her own skin, and much loved by her adoring husband. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Matthew Algeo tells us in the preface that
Harry Truman was the last president to leave the White House and return to something resembling a normal life. And in the summer of 1953 he did something millions of ordinary Americans do all the time, but something no former president had ever done before - and none has done since. He took a road trip, unaccompanied by Secret Service agents, bodyguards, or attendants of any kind. Truman and his wife, Bess, drove from their home in Independence, Missouri to the East Coast and back again. Harry was behind the wheel. Bess rode shotgun. The trip lasted nearly three weeks.
Sometimes they were recognized and other times they weren't. They stayed in public motels or hotels, and ate in the sorts of places all tourists frequent. When at all possible, the author has followed them in their travels, finding some buildings still there, and others gone forever. He was able to talk with people (or their family members) Harry had talked to almost sixty years ago. Matthew Algeo also discusses the times, and how they were different from now. We learn about many American cities and historical events.

Perhaps the most startling fact is that Harry Truman, who became president after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death in 1945, and was then elected in 1948 for another four years, was in quite dire straits monetarily when his presidency was over. In those days, the only income he had was 'a small army pension,' which amounted to $111.96 a month.
He had no government-provided office space, staff, or security detail. Shortly before leaving office, he'd had to take out a loan from a Washington bank to help make ends meet.
When he went home to Independence, he had an office with two assistants whose salaries he paid himself. He answered the huge amount of mail he received, and paid for all the postage, which in the first year cost him ten thousand dollars. After he left office, 'out of respect for the presidency,' Truman wouldn't accept a position on any organization's board of directors. He didn't believe in 'commercializing' the presidency.

The author offers some comparisons with modern day ex-presidents, which as he says must have had Harry 'spinning in his grave.'
By the early 1980s, Ford was raking in more than a million dollars a year.
Bill Clinton earned more than ten million in speaking fees alone.
An ex-president gets a yearly pension of around $190,000. He also gets money for all those office expenses Harry Truman had to pay for himself, which can now amount to a million a year.
In 2008 the rent on Bill Clinton's office in Harlem alone was more than $500,000. (Carter's in Atlanta was $102,000. The elder Bush's in Houston was $175,000).
The total amount of money the federal government spends on its ex-presidents has risen from $160,000 in 1959 to an estimated $2.5 million in 2008. ... not counting Secret Service protection, which, in 2000, when four formers were living, cost nearly twenty-six million dollars altogether.
It is statistics like these, sprinkled throughout the book which make for fascinating reading. The book is really three-tiered: Harry and Bess' trip, Matthew Algeo's trip, and the wealth of information the author gives the reader. For instance, he visits the Princess Restaurant on Main Street in Frostburg, Maryland which is the only one of the 'small mom-and-pop businesses that the Trumans are known to have patronized ... that has survived, more or less intact, in the same family.' It was so sad to read that when they were there in 1953, 'Main Street positively bustled with businesses' and now they are all gone except for the Princess.

Just a year before Harry and Bess took their trip, my parents went on their own three-week road trip to Florida with another couple. My mother kept a little scrapbook which I treasure. I expect that Harry and Bess saw many of the same kinds of motels and restaurants during their travels.

Wouldn't you like to know what that pie was?

A pilgrimage for all Red Sox fans heading south, then and now.

That price has gone up a bit!

Enjoy that beer as you drive along!

This is wonderful book. It makes for reading that is informative and also great, great fun. I loved it. There's a website devoted to the book and the trip here. And if you'd like to learn more about Harry Truman, I highly recommend David McCullough's Truman.

This is my second book read for the Dewey Decimal Challenge 2012.


  1. What an interesting book! I had no idea about many of the facts your listed, although I did know about a few of them. I've always been very partial to reading about the First Ladies and have read several books about them. Bess Truman was very interesting.

    Love the tidbits from your parents' road trip. My folks drove from Texas to California on their honeymoon. It was delayed for a couple of years as they had no funds for it when they first married. I think I might have a picture or two from it. Maybe I'll look them up and post them on one Saturday.

  2. Thanks, Kay, I had fun looking through the scrapbook. I like the way people looked then. Harry was very dapper, as was my own father. Rarely saw him without a tie.
    I look forward to your pics. This is really a great book.

  3. Harry Truman is my favorite modern U.S. president. I just think he is so fascinating and down to earth. This book looks amazing - thanks for bringing it to my attention. Also, this is my first visit to your blog and I'm enjoying it!

  4. This sounds fascinating. I am definitely putting this on my to read list. Fascinating details. I wish there were more politicians with that kind of ethic around.

  5. Julie, thanks for coming by and leaving a note. If you like Truman, I really do think you'd like the biography. It is a big book but honestly it is so interesting and readable that you kind of forget how long it is!

    Karla, good to see you! Yeah, Truman was one of a kind. Not a perfect man, but he loved people and he loved his country. The biography by David M. is SO good.

  6. The times they have changed. I might have to read this one. I love to travel and I keep a scrapbook/journal for each trip. I love to look back and see what we did etc. I have never taken a 3-week trip. Now that would be a vacation.

  7. Lisa, you might like it in particular because there is a fair bit about your neck of the woods.

  8. I loved this post, Nan, and am interested in the book. Imagine, a president taking a road trip vacation like many Americans did at the time - including your own parents. I'll keep this on my list, Nan.

    We read McCullough's Truman for our book discussion group. It was quite a book and we had quite a discussion. You can't go wrong with any McCullough work, and Harry Truman was a fascinating individual.

    Have you read Maybe Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin?

  9. Splendid! Marvellous! Excellent! Running out of adjectives here, but you have made me be all enthusiastic about this book which I think I am going to try and find on Ebay or Amazon, it sounds exactly like the kind I love.
    You should take time out and repeat your parents' road trip, and turn that into a book as well.

  10. Penny, this is such a great book. You'll really like it, I'm quite sure! And I have read Wait Till Next Year, twice! I love that book.

    Librarian, it is so worth owning. Wonderful book! I love your idea!

  11. I have always been fond of Truman, I'm glad he had a happy time after the presidency, taking that tremendous decision could have felled him for the rest of his life. I remember reading that Bess Truman thought Camp David was 'dull'. I bet Michelle Obama wishes she had the freedom say such things. Have been reading about a new book on the Obamas, how on earth do they survive such a life?

  12. I grew up in the 40s and 50s and we took road trips every summer. We knew Rt. 66 like the back of our hands. I remember the PA Turnpike and all kinds of places; they're some of my happiest memories. I must read this book. David McCulloch's Truman has been on my TBR shelf for too long.

  13. What a wonderful post nan! Truman was really an exceptional president and man! Saw a documentary on him on PBS part of the American Experience show. Very interesting...Roosevelt kept him completely in the dark on everything, he did not like Truman and then died and left it all in Truman's lap. I will have to get this book! Road Trip sounds like such fun too. Will have to put that on our radar for retirement coming up!

  14. What a lovely post. I didn't realize ex-presidents got all those perks.

  15. Carole, I've heard about that book. I sure wouldn't want the job!

    Barbara, I've never been on the famous Route 66. :<( This book and Truman will go nicely together. A mini-Truman fest!

    Thank you, Peggy. Both books tell us a lot about the man and his times.

    Ann, but poor Truman didn't!!

  16. This book sounds delightful, Nan. And what a wonderful review.

    I also enjoyed looking at your photos of your mom and pop's trip. How fortunate you are to have these snippets of your parent's lives.

    I have so little left of my parents' past (for a variety of reasons) that I can't help but envy those that do retain these sorts of treasures.

  17. Sounds wonderful, Nan! I'm going to see if my provincial library system can scare up a copy. Thanks for the tip!

  18. I actually don't know much about Truman, but I loved reading all about his post-presidential life in your post. As you pointed out, how the times have changed. The commenter named Carole mentioned above the recent book about the Obamas. I watched the author, Jodi Kantor, when she was a guest on the Daily Show last week. She said by the conclusion of her interviews for the book, she kind of felt like "Free the first family!"

  19. This sounds like a fun book! It's on my list -- especially as the Kindle edition is so inexpensive. You've also inspired me to read David McCullough's biography of Truman. I've been wanting to for awhile, but I think I'll tackle the "physical" book instead of trying to read it on my Kindle. Thanks for the excellent post and for all the great pictures!

  20. Yvette, it's a really wonderful book. I don't have too much stuff. I'm not a big keeper, though I do have photos which I love.

    Debbie, it's such an entertaining and interesting read. I love the way the author writes.

    Christy, that's sad, isn't it. Too bad it wasn't more fun in the White House.

    Jill, thank you. I listened to Truman on unabridged audio, and then bought the book! It's really so good.

  21. I knew some of this because we visited their home in Independence MO -- it was just so amazingly like my own grandparents home, furnished so similar. (equally fun to compare your parents road trip to Harry and Bess's). Independence is a great place to visit -- also his Presidential Library is there and the street signs showed a profile of him walking (he walked all over). I read David McCulough's book a long time ago and now I'm ordering this book! Thanks for the review.

  22. Sallie, you'll love it! I'd love to visit his home, but fear I'll never get there. He did walk, and it is talked about in this book.

  23. Wow, times really have changed! It's so hard to think of any of the presidents of our lifetimes taking off down the road and going on vacation by themselves. They do look like they're having a lot of fun in that cover picture though!

  24. Jen, it's a joyful book! I think you'd enjoy it.

  25. I adore this post! I think I'll get a copy of the book for my stepdad for his 81st birthday next month. He and my mom have taken dozens and dozens of road trips (from Oregon all the way to North Carolina!), so I'm sure they'd both enjoy the book. I'm also going to get a copy for my hubby "just because."

    Fun for you to have that scrapbook of your parents' road trip!

  26. Oh, yes they all will love it, Les! I'm quite, quite sure. I've just ordered it for Tom's mother for her birthday.


I'll answer your comments as soon as I possibly can. Please do come back if you've asked a question.
Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.