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March 2017



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Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure is Excellent

I'm a President-nut. I also enjoy road trips. So I was thrilled to learn about Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. This book covers an incredibly small piece of Presidential history, a scant three weeks in the summer of 1953, an event of which I'd read only one mention. Months after leaving office, 33rd President Harry Truman and his wife Bess hopped in their brand-new car and went on a 3,000-mile road trip from their home in Missouri back to Washington, DC, and then on up to New York City, and then back home.

To write the book, Algeo tried to retrace their route, following not the interstates we know today (a legacy of Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower), but rather the national roads that were the main car paths of the era. He stopped where they did, ate where they did (when the places were still in existence), and even tried to sleep in the same places (he could, in some instances).

It's a wonderful book of a bygone era. When Truman retired from the Presidency (the first President to do so in 20 years), there was no Presidential pension, no provision for government funding, and no Secret Service protection. After Eisenhower took the oath of office on 20 January 1953, Truman's detail escorted him to a goodbye lunch in DC, and then to Union Station, and waved goodbye as he and Bess headed home. That was it. (Eisenhower himself was the last President to retire without full-time Secret Service protection, but after his traveling life, he was more interested in staying home.)

So there was no one to ask permission when Truman decided he wanted to take the trip. Algeo goes into his pre-Presidential history, showing us the Truman who was fascinated by his cars, and who drove a great deal before he wound up in the Oval Office, in order to point out that this road trip was completely in character. Harry Truman the businessman, the Senator, the President, or the retired President was, in Algeo's estimation, the same man.

In the book, we feel the Trumans' attempt to blend in as just another middle-aged couple on a road trip, and how abysmally they failed. Everywhere they went, they were recognized, and Algeo interviewed people who ran into them on the way. While the Trumans didn't find the anonymity they sought, they did, apparently, find a much greater outpouring of public love than they could possibly have expected. Truman left office with one of the lowest public approval ratings in history, but Algeo shows us that, at every turn, he was surprised and gratified by the warm welcome he received, both in small towns and big cities.

We see the differences the last 50 years have wrought, both large and small. From their meticulous recording of the mileage the car got (at 27.1 cents per gallon) to the fact that Harry was not out of place when he wore a suit and tie every day of the trip (only removing the jacket as he drove).

Algeo has fleshed out the book with observations and tangents that connect with the story of their drive: we get commentary on state politics, economic upheaval, national funding of infrastructure and the development of our highway system, the birth (and death) of motels, and more. He takes a fascinating (though brief) story and turns it into a wonderful excuse to follow many paths of interesting little stories, and connecting them all together. He also brings in Truman's predecessor, Herbert Hoover (who was something of a political pariah under Roosevelt, but brought in from the wilderness but the tentative and growing friendship with Truman), and hints at a fascinating conversation that never happened: Herbert Hoover lived in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, as did Douglas MacArthur, and when the Trumans reached New York, they, too, stayed in the Waldorf. According to Algeo, the three did not meet during the Trumans' stay, but what a conversation that might have been.

I was sucked in immediately, not only by the story, but by the fact that I've driven a significant portion of their path myself. And I felt another connection, reading it just now. Harry and Bess's road trip took them out of Independence, Missouri, on 19 June 1953: 56 years ago today. If you can grab a copy of the book quickly, you can read their trip on the days it happens (Algeo breaks the story up into days). But hurry: they returned home on 8 July.

Reading this book makes me want to retrace their route in a road trip of my own, except that Algeo has already done it, and done it well. I recommend this quick read, lavishly illustrated with period photographs.


I've just requested this book at the library. Thanks for the recommendation!
My pleasure. Hope you enjoy it.