Monday, October 12, 2009

A great American road trip

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

David McCullough's Truman
is the definitive biography of the man from Missouri. But I felt that book did not give enough coverage to the twenty years after Truman left office. Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, by Matthew Algeo, is a partial remedy to that. A relatively apolitical book, it covers a 1953 car trip Truman took with his wife, Bess, from their home in Independence, Missouri, to Washington, DC, up to New York City, and back to independence. Harry drove while Bess sat in the passenger seat, watching the speedometer to make sure Harry didn't speed. There was no secret service protection in those days, and while Harry and Bess tried to travel in anonymity, the press managed to track the couple down from time to time.

For those accustomed to thinking of Harry Truman as the plain spoken, quick tempered man who once threatened to punch a music reviewer for panning his daughter's singing, this book will come as a surprise. One factor that comes through is Truman's meticulousness. As the former owner of a men's clothing store (known as a haberdashery back in the day) Truman was always a snappy dresser, with a pocket kerchief carefully folded so that all four corners showed. The former president was just as particular about the way he packed his luggage (so that clothing emerged perfectly folded), the care of his new car (with Bess keeping tab of the gasoline expenditures), and the trip route (planned by Truman himself, long before the days of GPS).

Another factor of Truman's personality that emerges is his essential populism. He was not a demagogue populist like Pat Buchanan, or a corporate pseudo-populist like Glenn Beck. Harry Truman was always for the "little guy". He loved people, cared about them (he even took a two hour side trip to spend time with an elderly woman he'd never met), and was genuinely interested in learning about their lives.

Some have complained about the author's insertion of himself into the narrative and comparisons of present-day America with Truman's era. But Algeo's contemporary narration points out how America has changed since 1953. In some ways for the better: racial integration, and equality of the sexes. But we are a less personal, more corporate country than we were in 1953. Harry Truman would be saddened to know how many of the little diners, shops, and motels he stayed at have either gone out of business or been co-opted by large corporations. (I could never imagine Harry shopping at a Walmart.) Despite the number of times I smiled when reading this book, there were tinges of sadness as well.

Direct link to my Amazon review

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