HARRY TRUMAN’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE: THE TRUE STORY OF A GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press, $24.95, 262 pages $24.95
Reviewed by Philip Kopper
While presidential biographies by David McCullough and Edmund Morris might be likened to Beethoven symphonies in their magisterial sweep, “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure” resonates Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” - brassy, bright, energetic, brief and declaratively American.
Matthew Algeo, a former National Public Radio reporter and author of a book about pro football’s past, uncovered a curiosity of presidential history. Months after leaving office, President Truman did what no president had done before. He packed up the car and drove halfway across the country with his wife, Bess, from Independence, Mo., to New York and back, stopping here and there along the way.
Setting his own agenda and shadowing his subject, Mr. Algeo “drove where the Trumans drove, ate where they ate, and slept where they slept. I saw the sights they saw and, whenever possible, met with the people they met with.” Call it explorative journalism - investigative reporting with benign intent, a noble and neglected genre, though he does take it to extremes. (In St. Louis, the German restaurant where the Trumans dined is gone, so the intrepid reporter determined that the Rib Cafe “is roughly were Schneithorst’s used to be,” and when he found it closed, he returned the next day for lunch. “We ordered ribs, naturally, and they were pretty good. … ” Methinks he doth report too much.)
In detailing Mr. Truman’s road trip, Mr. Algeo reveals some symptomatic things we have lost in three score years: the slower pace of driving straight through cities, the family restaurants that were social institutions everywhere; the centers of towns that were vibrant shopping districts and economic hubs; the gas stations that were fonts of fuel and information; the grapevines that spread local news like wildfire by actual word-of-mouth.
Along the meandering route, he pauses over nuggets of tangential interest: That the first motel opened in 1925, then 20,000 independent ones followed before the first chain opened in 1952. That Mr. Truman’s State of the Union Address was the first to be televised - in all of three cities. That while visiting daughter Margaret, the Trumans stayed in the Waldorf-Towers below Cole Porter’s old suite. (Last year it went on the market for $140,000. “Per month.”) That the chicken dinner Mr. Truman bought for 70 cents now costs $9.50.
So, the book instructs about its subject period and reveals changes in our culture over the course of a half-century. Through the Trumans’ experience, Mr. Algeo creates a montage of a simpler America, and a friendlier place for travelers (white, at least). He also uses the trip to wander down important historical byways. While Mr. Truman was driving East, blacks in Baton Rouge, La., launched an unsung boycott that broke the color bar on local buses in just four days and inspired Martin Luther King’s avalanche action in Montgomery, Ala., a few years later.
Among other landmark accomplishments of his presidency - facing down communism in Greece, Korea and elsewhere, desegregating the armed forces - Mr. Truman created the CIA and gave it the single purpose of collecting intelligence. Months after he left office, President Eisenhower’s CIA launched the plot to unseat the prime minister of Iran and install the shah, thus, Mr. Algeo writes, setting “the stage for the Islamic Revolution in 1979, not to mention generations of anti-American sentiment in Iran.” Mr. Truman himself wrote later that the coup “led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations.”
Before the trip, Mr. Truman bought a big black New Yorker sedan with a V-8 engine, wire wheels and whitewalls. It was so advanced that Chrysler sent an engineer to Independence to teach the ex-president how to ring all the bells and blow the whistles. Then the Trumans set out alone, no police escorts, no Secret Service detail. They hoped to travel anonymously, and indeed they passed through some places unnoticed. But Mrs. Truman, aka “The Boss,” insisted he keep it to 55 mph, and when faster motorists honked and waved as they passed, Mr. Truman told her, “There goes our incognito - and I don’t mean a part of the car.”
Mr. Algeo creates a mosaic of America with trivia: As much land in Illinois is under cultivation now as then, while the number of farms has halved. Presidents had no pension plan until Truman. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy lied to a women’s club in Wheeling, W.Va., that he had “here in my hand a list of 205” communist spies at the State Department, the local paper buried the quote on Page 6, whence the Associated Press picked it up in a rewrite that made headlines across the land and sparked the national witch hunt.
The portrait of Mr. Truman that emerges is an affectionate profile of an unaffected guy. When people recognized him in restaurants, he would stop to chat. When they flocked around him, he signed autographs and was unfailingly polite. When he stopped for gas, he thumbed the local pulse by visiting with the grease monkeys.
Not that he was a patsy. He drank Wild Turkey, had firm friends, and made peace with many adversaries, Mr. Eisenhower and former President Herbert Hoover among them - but not Richard M. Nixon, whom he never forgave because “He called me a traitor.”
In many ways, Mr. Truman was a most ordinary man of his time, thus an extraordinary one to become president who could then return to private life a common man again, almost. It’s hardly news that he was decent, honest and unpretentious, but it’s nice to be reminded that a previous national leader was both able and genuinely down-to-earth. Let today’s elder statesmen take notice.
When Mr. Truman read an early draft of his official memoirs as written by ghostwriters, Mr. Algeo notes that he scribbled across a page “Good God, what crap!”
Philip Kopper writes about history and the arts.
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