Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Road trippin', Harry Truman's way

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, by Matthew Algeo
Recommend: Yes
To whom: Anyone, no matter your political leanings
Why: Thoroughly entertaining and informative, and reads quickly

Imagine George and Laura Bush taking a road trip less than six months after leaving office, without Secret Service or hotel reservations.

Hard to believe, but Harry and Bess Truman did just that when Harry accepted the invitation to speak at the Reserve Officers Association convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1953. The couple piled into his brand new Chrysler New Yorker and headed out of Independence, Missouri east onto U.S. Highway 24.

Algeo chronicles the Trumans' two-and-a-half-week trip, with stops in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Algeo visited the diners, hotels, and other places Truman visited, hoping to get a sense of what Truman experienced. Of course, Algeo didn't attract the attention that Harry did when he dined at the Princess restaurant in Frostburg, Maryland, or when he simply stopped at a gas station.

Not only does the book cover the Trumans' itinerary, it also reveals the history of the American road trip. Algeo writes that when Truman stopped at a gas station in Decatur, Illinois, he asked the attendant for a motel recommendation. "We'd never stayed at one," Truman later explained, "and we wanted to try it out and see if we liked it (p. 61)." Algeo offers a brief history of the motel, which began in 1925 with the construction of the first "motor hotel" in San Luis Obispo, California along Highway 101. The idea took off, and 20,000 motels dotted highways by 1940. The first Holiday Inn opened in 1952, introducing the national chain motel model that we know so well today. Algeo presents similar fascinating histories of roads, Air Force One, and the presidential pension.

Harry Truman was the last President to leave office without a guaranteed pension. Harry loved to drive and looked forward to this independent road trip, but the Trumans traveled by car (not by plane) to save money. Algeo explains:

"As a government employee ... Harry Truman did not qualify for Social Security. And he'd left the Senate too soon to qualify for a congressional pension. His only income was that army pension."

So Harry and Bess had to be frugal. Out of principle, Harry refused numerous job offers that came his way because he wanted to preserve the dignity of the Presidency. As Algeo points out, things have changed dramatically, with former Presidents now claiming thousands of dollars for a single speech. In 1958, the Former Presidents Act was signed into law granting the presidential pension, an annual sum of $25,000, plus $50,000 for office expenses and "unlimited franking privileges." Algeo writes: "At long last, Harry Truman was financially secure."

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