Monday, June 17, 2013

Hit the road with Harry

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure
The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
by Matthew Algeo

Sixty years ago this week Harry Truman, 69 years old and fresh out of office, did something no other former president has ever done. He packed up his car, climbed behind the wheel and hit the road like any ordinary private citizen. No aides, no press, no security detail, just the ex-president and former first lady on a cross-country trip from Independence, MO to New York and back again.

Unbelievable? Crazy? Publicity stunt? No, no and no. It really happened, and Matthew Algeo does a remarkable job both of bringing this little-known episode in presidential history to light and of making the case that it was not lunacy but rather a quintessentially American gesture. Harry Truman, you see, was the last American president to leave office without an executive pension, paid staff or round-the-clock security detail. Truman had to pinch his pennies in retirement, but he enjoyed a degree of freedom unimaginable for any ex-president since.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure is really two books in one. One recounts Truman's wild 1953 ride, the other Algeo's retracing of Truman's path by driving the same roads, eating and sleeping at the same places, and even visiting some of the same people Truman met on the road. Of course, the original trip makes for more exciting reading, but Algeo's wistful review of the lost world of pre-Interstate, small-town America will put a lump in your throat.

If you're looking for serious history, grab a copy of David McCullough's magisterial Truman, the book that singlehandedly rehabilitated the reputation of America's 33rd president. But if you're looking for something lighter but not fluffy, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure is a perfect summer read. Slip a copy into your overnight bag when you hit the road this summer; you'll find Harry Truman a surprisingly enjoyable travel companion.

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Review by Don Beistle   

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