By Christopher Buckley
Sunday, June 14, 2009
HARRY TRUMAN'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review. 262 pp. $24.95
The title "Excellent Adventure" probably ought to be retired at this point, but not quite yet, for Matthew Algeo has given us just that: an extremely excellent adventure by ex-President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, in the form of a road trip they both made -- just the two of them -- in the summer of 1953, not long after Harry had left the White House with a 22 percent approval rating. Twenty-two percent . . . why does that sound familiar? (Confidential memo to George W: Pack up that car with Laura and hit the road!)
It's hard not to read this utterly likable if occasionally overwrought book without feeling a tad nostalgic for the days when American automobiles set the gold standard, gas cost 27 cents a gallon, and the best restaurant in town might be found at the airport. It may make you feel a bit ironic, too, inasmuch as the impetus for the Truman escapade was a trip to Philadelphia, where the former president delivered a speech deploring Republican cuts to the defense budget. At times, you feel as though you've wandered into an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
Harry Truman, perhaps the most down-to-earth man who ever led this country, returned home to Independence, Mo., in 1953, broke. His only source of income was his $111.96-per-month World War I pension. In those days, ex-presidents didn't get pensions.
But they might be offered a free car, and Harry happily accepted a spanking-new 1953 Chrysler (those were the days) New Yorker. The sticker price then was about $4,000, the average yearly salary of an American worker. It was offered gratis, but Truman insisted on paying something -- and probably spent a whole dollar on it. A very presidential compromise.
Harry had always been a car man, and now he had the best. And so, broke, out of work, he did what any red-blooded American would do under similar circumstances: He hit the road and took along the missus to make sure he didn't speed (a Truman tendency).
And what an adventure they had. He got pulled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- despite Bess's supervision -- stayed in motels, ate in diners. Everyone delighted in seeing the former First Couple, never mind the 22 percent approval rating. The country just loved Harry.
When they reached Washington, the accommodations improved (the Mayflower). In New York City, they stayed at the Waldorf=Astoria (note the equal sign, duly explained by the diligent Algeo), where Harry pointedly did not look up his old friend and erstwhile adversary, Herbert Hoover. Cole Porter was also living there at the time. One of the delights of the book is the incidental detail: Porter and Secretary of State Dean Acheson had been roommates at Harvard Law School. Who knew? There's enough of that in here to make you a Trivial Pursuit god for a year.
In Philadelphia, Harry spoke to retired military officers in the same hotel where, years later, Legionnaire's Disease struck. Indeed, a weird hotel karma seemed to follow Harry and Bess: In Wheeling, W. Va., they stayed at the McClure House, the birthplace of McCarthyism. It was there that Tail Gunner Joe delivered the immortal line "I have here in my hand a list . . . ." A Decatur, Ill., motel where the Trumans lodged is now a correctional facility.
In Ohio, the couple passed near enough to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for Algeo, a public radio reporter, to descant informatively and amusingly over the history of presidential airplanes. Harry was the first president to fly domestically, he reports. Franklin Roosevelt's plane was nicknamed the Sacred Cow. Harry called his second plane the Independence. When he was flying over Ohio, home state of his nemesis, Republican Sen. Robert Taft, Harry would go aft to flush the lavatory in a symbolic gesture of non-partisanship. Presidential aircraft didn't become Air Force One until Eisenhower's time. Ike's plane, the Columbine II, took its name from the flower of Mamie Eisenhower's home state, Colorado. (It now sadly connotes something else.) Back then Ike's plane was also known as Air Force 8610. One day, there was a bit of confusion in air traffic control over it and Eastern Airlines flight 8610, prompting a new protocol of clarity in nomenclature.
All this is, to be sure, an America that no longer exists. The thought of an ex-president jumping into a car with just his wife, no Secret Service, packing his own bags, pumping his own gas, drinking Cokes with grease monkeys is . . . well, it ain't gonna happen, and we're the poorer nation for that. Perhaps this is why our current president's spontaneous evening strolls with his wife and their romantic dinners in Prague are so charming: They recall us to a time when we were sort of -- gosh -- normal.
The annual pension of an ex-president today is about $190,000, plus expenses that can bring the tab as high as $2.5 million. Gerald Ford, bless his Republican heart, turned the ex-presidency into a branding opportunity, and, together, the Clintons earned $109 million from eight years of speeches and corporate appearances. All of which proves, one might say, that it is still a great country, but very different from the days of Harry and Bess and their 1953 Chrysler. --
Christopher Buckley's new book is "Losing Mum and Pup," a memoir.