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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

4.1 25
by Matthew Algeo

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On June 19, 1953, Harry Truman got up early, packed the trunk of his Chrysler New Yorker, and did something no other former president has done before or since: he hit the road. No Secret Service protection. No traveling press. Just Harry and his childhood sweetheart Bess, off to visit old friends, take in a Broadway play, celebrate their wedding anniversary in


On June 19, 1953, Harry Truman got up early, packed the trunk of his Chrysler New Yorker, and did something no other former president has done before or since: he hit the road. No Secret Service protection. No traveling press. Just Harry and his childhood sweetheart Bess, off to visit old friends, take in a Broadway play, celebrate their wedding anniversary in the Big Apple, and blow a bit of the money he’d just received to write his memoirs. Hopefully incognito.

            In this lively history, author Matthew Algeo meticulously details how Truman’s plan to blend in went wonderfully awry. Fellow diners, bellhops, cabbies, squealing teenagers at a Future Homemakers of America convention, and one very by-the-book Pennsylvania state trooper all unknowingly conspired to blow his cover. Algeo revisits the Trumans’ route, staying at the same hotels and eating at the same diners, and takes readers on brief detours into topics such as the postwar American auto industry, McCarthyism, the nation’s highway system, and the decline of Main Street America. By the end of the 2,500-mile journey, you will have a new and heartfelt appreciation for America’s last citizen-president.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the Best Books of the Year." —Washington Post

"An engaging account . . . Well-researched."  —Wall Street Journal

“Now, this is what’s called a road trip.” —In Transit, New York Times travel blog

"Matthew Algeo recalls [my grandparents'] memorable trip beautifully and with the sense of humor it deserves."  —Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman

"Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure resonates Aaron Copeland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man'—brassy, bright, energetic, brief and declaratively American."  —Washington Times

"Enlivened by Algeo"s endeavors to see the places where Truman stopped, this is an engaging historical sidebar."  —Booklist Online

“Algeo chronicles this unlikely excursion in great and wonderful detail. . . . [An] enchanting glimpse into a much simpler age.” —Library Journal

“An absolutely wonderful book.” —Virginian-Pilot

Christopher Buckley
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Public radio reporter Algeo (Last Team Standing) brings the 1950s into focus with a fascinating reconstruction of Harry and Bess Truman's postpresidential 2,500-mile road trip. "I like to take trips-any kind of trip," Truman wrote. "They are about the only recreation I have besides reading." Between 2006 and 2008, Algeo retraced their journey with stopovers at some of the same diners and hotels the couple visited. When Truman left the White House in 1953, he returned to Independence, Mo., rejecting lucrative offers he felt would "commercialize" the presidency. His only income was a small army pension. Acquiring a 1953 Chrysler, the Trumans set out with no fanfare and a curious notion of "traveling incognito." However, reporters and newsreel cameras soon turned their vehicular vacation into an ongoing media event. The book benefits from extensive research through oral history interviews and papers at the Harry S. Truman Library, and Algeo's own interviews with eyewitnesses. With deliberate detours, this book is a portal into the past with layers of details providing unusual authenticity and a portrait of the president as an ordinary man. 20 b&w photos, 1 map. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Wall Street Journal

An engaging account . . . well-researched.

Washington Times

Resonates Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man—brassy, bright, energetic, brief and declaratively American.

Riverfront Times

Charming and engrossing.

Jackson Free Press

Algeo has done a first-rate job of piecing together the trip...a fascinating reading experience.

Booklist Online

Enlivened by Algeo's endeavors to see the places where Truman stopped, this is an engaging historical sidebar.

Library Journal

In the summer of 1953, back in Missouri after leaving the White House six months before, Harry and Bess Truman loaded up their new Chrysler and headed out, like thousands of their fellow citizens, on a summer vacation. Public radio reporter Algeo chronicles this unlikely excursion in great and wonderful detail. The Trumans drove to Washington, DC, to visit old friends and then on to New York to visit their daughter, Margaret. Along the way they caused a sensation at almost every diner and filling station at which they stopped. In addition to a detailed itinerary, Algeo, who retraced the Trumans' route, also provides many interesting side trips, including both press and government reactions and interviews with folks who'd met the Trumans on the trip. It was still a time when former Presidents received no pension or Secret Service protection, when there were no interstate highways or big chain motels, and travel was a much more intimate and haphazard affair. This enchanting glimpse into a much simpler age that is all but gone should appeal to anyone interested in the Fifties, Harry Truman, or unusual travel tales. Recommended for public libraries and undergraduate collections.
—Dan Forrest

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Read an Excerpt

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

The True Story of a Great American Road Trip

By Matthew Algeo

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2009 Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-251-6


Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1953

On January 20, 1953 — his last day in the White House — Harry Truman awoke at five-thirty, as usual. He skipped his customary morning walk and, after breakfast, attended to the final business of his presidency. His last official act was the signing of a letter to James A. Campbell, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the federal civil service system. (The system was instituted after one of Truman's unlucky predecessors, James Garfield, was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, the proverbial "disappointed office seeker.") In the letter, Truman decried what he called "recent reckless attacks" on civil servants, referring to Republican charges that the federal bureaucracy was infested with communists.

At 8:45, the president began saying good-bye to the White House staff, bounding from room to room, shaking hands with every stenographer, cook, maid, doorman, secretary, mailroom clerk, and telephone operator. The good-byes were heartfelt. Few presidents were as beloved by the White House help. Truman remembered their birthdays. He called them when they were sick. "He has been a wonderful guy to work for," one unidentified White House employee told a reporter that day. "You just wanted to do things for him."

Around eleven o'clock, Truman retired to the Red Room. An eighteenth-century French clock on the mantelpiece loudly ticked off the seconds as Truman and his wife, Bess, waited for his successor to arrive. The Trumans had invited Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower to join them inside the White House for coffee before riding to the inauguration. It was a tradition that stretched back nearly 150 years, to 1809, when Madison called on Jefferson. It wasn't always convivial or comfortable, particularly when the presidents were from different parties, but it symbolized, palpably, the peaceful and democratic transfer of power.

Awaiting Eisenhower, Truman's emotions must have been mixed. The two men had once been cordial, even friendly. Truman had admired Eisenhower, the general who'd done so much to win the war that Truman had unexpectedly inherited as commander in chief. When Eisenhower announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination early in 1952, Truman was effusive, notwithstanding Ike's party affiliation. Eisenhower was "a grand man," Truman told reporters soon after Ike's announcement. "I am just as fond of General Eisenhower as I can be."

But the presidential campaign had soured their relationship. At a campaign stop in Wisconsin, Eisenhower had redacted from his speech a tribute to General George Marshall, who had served Truman as secretary of state and, later, as secretary of defense. Marshall, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, was a favorite target of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who called him all but a traitor for the "loss of China" to Mao's communist forces. Eisenhower apparently expunged the tribute to avoid alienating McCarthy in his home state. (Unbeknownst to Ike, an unedited copy of the speech had been distributed to reporters beforehand.) When Truman, who considered Marshall closer to God than most men, heard this, he was apoplectic. In Utica, New York, Truman, campaigning for the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, told a crowd, "I had never thought the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low." Privately, Truman called Eisenhower a "coward" for kowtowing to McCarthy.

Truman and Eisenhower had even had a hat spat: Eisenhower wanted to wear a homburg to his swearing in. Truman thought the occasion befitted a more formal top hat, but, conceding it was Ike's prerogative to choose the headgear for his inauguration, he wore a homburg. (John F. Kennedy would turn the tables on Eisenhower eight years later. JFK donned a silk top hat, forcing Ike to wear one too. Since then the presidential hat wars have abated markedly.)

At eleven-thirty, the president-elect's limousine finally pulled up to the White House. Ike sent word inside that he and Mamie would not be joining the Trumans for coffee. Tradition be damned: Ike didn't want to step foot inside the executive mansion until he was the executive. It was a snub, plain and simple, a "shocking moment," according to the newsman Eric Sevareid, who was there. Truman was furious, but he walked outside and greeted Eisenhower with all the faux warmth he could muster. "Truman was gracious," Sevareid told Truman biographer David McCullough. "He showed his superiority by what he did."

Truman joined Eisenhower in an open limousine, a huge black Lincoln, for the short ride to the Capitol. Their wives (and the Trumans' daughter, Margaret) rode behind them in a separate car. Truman and Eisenhower smiled and waved to the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue, but barely spoke to each other.

After a ride that must have seemed much longer than the two miles it actually was, the limousine pulled up to the east side of the Capitol, where a temporary platform had been constructed for the inauguration ceremonies. Truman climbed up to the dais and was seated in a plush leather chair just behind the podium.

Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, was sworn in first. While repeating the oath, Nixon failed to repeat the word support when he was supposed to swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." The omission was barely noticed. At twelve-thirty — a half-hour late — Eisenhower was sworn in by Chief Justice Fred Vinson. (Vinson had been appointed by Truman, and he is still the last chief justice appointed by a Democrat.) Eisenhower was now president of the United States. Truman, as he had put it in his farewell address five days earlier, was now "a plain, private citizen."

After a brief prayer, Eisenhower began his inaugural address. "My fellow citizens," he intoned. "The world and we have passed the midway point of a century of continuing challenge. We sense with all our faculties that forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history...."

Truman slumped in his chair ever so slightly. He later admitted he'd found it difficult to focus on Eisenhower's words. His mind began to wander. Perhaps his thoughts turned back to the summer of 1922. Back then — a little more than thirty years earlier — he was thirty-eight, married just three years, and living in his mother-in-law's house in Independence, Missouri. The haberdashery that he had opened with his friend Eddie Jacobson in nearby Kansas City had failed earlier that year, and it would take him fifteen years to pay off the debts. He was, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. "Broke and in a bad way" — that's how Harry summed up that summer many years later.

It was an old army buddy named Jimmy Pendergast who came to Truman's rescue. Jimmy's uncle, Tom Pendergast, was Kansas City's political boss, and he was looking for a good candidate to run for eastern judge of Jackson County, a position akin to county commissioner. Jimmy recommended Truman. As a Baptist, a Mason, and a former farmer, he fit the bill perfectly. Running as the "good roads" candidate, Truman won the election that fall.

In 1934 the Pendergast machine helped Truman get elected to the U.S. Senate. For years he was known derisively as "the senator from Pendergast," but he eventually distinguished himself by chairing a commission that uncovered waste in military spending.

At the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, party leaders decided to kick Vice President Henry Wallace off the ticket. They regarded Wallace, a plant geneticist who dabbled in mysticism and astrology, as far too liberal, something of a loose cannon, and, well, a little strange. Truman, who always insisted he never campaigned for the job, was chosen to replace Wallace, largely because the other contenders were either too liberal or too conservative. "I had never even seen Truman in my life before he was nominated," remembered Democratic National Committee Chairman Edward J. Flynn. "All I knew was that no one could do Roosevelt any good, and it was a question of who would do him the least harm." Franklin Roosevelt, who didn't even bother to attend the convention, went along with the choice, though he complained he hardly knew the senator. Truman's candidacy was, reporters joked, another "Missouri Compromise." Bess Truman, who already thought the family was spending far too much time away from Independence, was not happy. After the convention, Harry, Bess, and Margaret drove home. The atmosphere inside the car, Margaret later recalled, was "close to arctic." It was the last long drive Harry and Bess would take for many years.

A month later, Roosevelt invited Truman to the White House for lunch. Truman, who hadn't even seen the president in a year, was shocked by his appearance. "I had no idea he was in such a feeble condition," Truman confided to a friend. "In pouring cream in his tea, he got more cream in the saucer than he did in the cup." In photographs taken of the two men that day, Roosevelt is hunched and haggard, with dark bags beneath his eyes. Truman is beaming, vibrant. It was hard to believe that Roosevelt was only two years older than Truman.

The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won the 1944 election in a landslide. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Truman had been vice president eighty-two days. Apart from cabinet meetings, he had met with Roosevelt just twice.

Truman would win the White House in his own right in 1948, famously upsetting Thomas E. Dewey and most political prognosticators.

His presidency had encompassed some of the most monumental events of the twentieth century: World War II, the founding of the United Nations, McCarthyism, Korea, the Cold War.

Sitting on that dais on that winter's day in 1953, the summer of 1922 must have seemed like a very long time ago to Harry Truman.

Eisenhower droned on: "Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark ..."

Truman's mind wandered still. Perhaps he pondered his uncertain future. He was sixty-eight now, but quite hale. On most mornings he still walked two miles before breakfast, at his old army pace of 120 steps per minute. And longevity was in his genes: his mother had lived to be ninety-four. (His father had died at sixty-two of complications from surgery for a hernia.) By any estimation, Harry Truman had a lot of life left.

But what to do with it? Truman, a student of history, well knew that ex- presidents often faded into obscurity, irrelevancy — or worse. There were notable exceptions, of course. After their presidential terms, John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives and William H. Taft was appointed chief justice. But, more often, an ex- president's life was one of disappointment and disillusionment. Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt both tried to regain the presidency without success. John Tyler was elected to Congress — the Confederate Congress. He died before he could take office, but most Northerners considered him a traitor, and his passing was barely noted in Northern newspapers. Franklin Pierce, a raging alcoholic, reportedly said there was nothing to do but "get drunk" after the presidency. This he did with astonishing abandon, until it killed him, though hardly anybody noticed.

Herbert Hoover, seated just a few feet from Truman on the dais that day, was the only other living member of the ex-presidents club. After his humiliating defeat in 1932, Hoover had lived in political isolation — until his career was resuscitated by Truman himself.

Hoover, at least, was rich. He'd made a fortune in mining before going into politics. At the time, ex-presidents received no pension, and some had died broke. Thomas Jefferson was forced to sell his beloved library to make ends meet. James Monroe was so destitute he had to move in with his daughter and her husband. Ulysses S. Grant, his life savings lost in a swindle, had just eighty dollars in the bank at one point. He was saved from penury only by selling his memoirs to Mark Twain. "They just ... let them starve to death," Truman complained of the country's treatment of its ex-presidents soon after he left the White House.

Truth was, Harry Truman didn't know what to do with the rest of his life. He had no specialized training, nothing more than a high school diploma. (He is the last president without a postsecondary degree.) There was speculation that he might make another run for office, perhaps as a senator or governor back in Missouri. He could even run for the White House again if he wanted to: he was the last president eligible to serve more than two terms. Theoretically, anyway, in four years he could be standing once more in the very spot where Eisenhower now stood.

One thing was certain, though: Harry Truman needed money. He wasn't destitute, but he was far from rich, and he knew his post-presidential expenses would be considerable. He had already rented an office in Kansas City, and he would need at least two assistants just to answer the mail. Besides, he felt obligated to maintain a certain standard of living, if only to uphold the dignity of the office he had just vacated.

Yet his only income would be a pension for his service as an officer in France during World War I. That pension amounted to $111.96 a month, after taxes. Ironically, he did not receive credit for his nearly eight years as commander in chief.

Truman had come to the presidency with little personal wealth. When he took office, the salary was seventy-five thousand dollars a year, but out of that he was expected to pay all White House expenses. One year he netted just forty-two hundred dollars. In 1949 the salary was raised to a hundred thousand dollars plus fifty thousand for expenses, but this was still barely enough to cover the growing cost of running the White House, and Truman was able to save little. A few months before leaving office, Truman had met with Martin Stone, a lawyer–turned–television mogul, to discuss his post-presidential job prospects. "The president was frank that he'd be needing money when he returned to his modest home," Stone recalled.

Finally, Eisenhower concluded his inaugural address: "The peace we seek ... is nothing less than the practice and fulfillment of our whole faith among ourselves and in our dealings with others. ... This is the work that awaits us all, to be done with bravery, with charity, and with prayer to Almighty God. My citizens, thank you." The speech had lasted nineteen minutes.

A wave of applause rolled toward the dais, snapping Truman out of his reverie.

After the ceremony, the Trumans were driven to the home of Dean Acheson, Harry's erstwhile secretary of state, for a farewell luncheon. As his driver negotiated the teeming Inauguration Day streets of Washington, the new ex-president experienced his first taste of civilian life: the long black White House limousine obeyed all traffic signals. It was the first time in nearly eight years that Harry Truman had stopped for a red light.

After lunch, the Trumans stopped by the home of Harry's longtime personal secretary, Matthew Connelly, where Harry took his customary afternoon nap. Around 4:00 P.M., they were driven to Union Station to catch the train back home to Independence.

At the station, Harry and Bess bade farewell to their Secret Service detail. Just as they received no pensions, ex-presidents at that time received no government-financed bodyguards. The Trumans were no longer, in Secret Service parlance, protectees. They were on their own now.

The Trumans would ride home in the presidential railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan, which was attached to the end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's regular National Limited. Truman had undertaken his historic whistle-stop campaign on board the Ferdinand Magellan in 1948. The car was now at Eisenhower's disposal, of course, but the new president had offered it to the Trumans in an effort to mend fences. Truman appreciated the gesture, but for the time being, anyway, he kept the hatchet very much unburied.

Unexpectedly, a crowd of over three thousand had gathered at Union Station to see the Trumans off: senators, members of Congress, supreme court justices, generals, admirals, old friends, foreign diplomats, ordinary Washingtonians. They sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Auld Lang Syne." "Good-bye, Mr. President," they shouted. "Good-bye, Harry!" Many wept. Said prim Dean Acheson with uncharacteristic folksiness, "We're saying good-bye to the greatest guy that ever was." The Trumans were deeply moved by the impromptu going away party. "I can't adequately express my appreciation for what you are doing," Harry told the crowd from the rear platform of the Ferdinand Magellan. "I'll never forget it if I live to be a hundred — and that's just what I intend to do!" At six-thirty, the valves underneath the train hissed and the conductor called out, "All aboard." As the train slowly pulled out of the station, Harry and Bess stood waving from the back platform. They seemed reluctant for the moment to end. They kept waving as the train disappeared into the Washington night. "They've gone back to Missouri," a porter said wistfully as he watched the couple fade into darkness.


Excerpted from Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2009 Matthew Algeo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"One of the Best Books of the Year." —Washington Post

"An engaging account . . . Well-researched."  —Wall Street Journal

“Now, this is what’s called a road trip.” —In Transit, New York Times travel blog

"Matthew Algeo recalls [my grandparents'] memorable trip beautifully and with the sense of humor it deserves."  —Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman

"Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure resonates Aaron Copeland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man'—brassy, bright, energetic, brief and declaratively American."  —Washington Times

"Enlivened by Algeo"s endeavors to see the places where Truman stopped, this is an engaging historical sidebar."  —Booklist Online

“Algeo chronicles this unlikely excursion in great and wonderful detail. . . . [An] enchanting glimpse into a much simpler age.” —Library Journal

“An absolutely wonderful book.” —Virginian-Pilot

Meet the Author

Matthew Algeo is an award-winning journalist who has reported from three continents for public radio’s All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Morning Edition. He is the author of The President Is a Sick Man and Last Team Standing.

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Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
TurboLink More than 1 year ago
What a pleasant and entertaining story! I had recently read Robert Clara’s excellent account of FDR’s Funeral Train, which provided amazing insight into the 1944 transition to the Truman administration. Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure turned out to be an equally well researched and resourced portrayal of a trip our 33rd President and his bride made six months after leaving office. It provides a delightful portrayal of America in the 50s, perspective on the politics of the time, and a particularly wonderful profile of Harry and Bess Truman as human beings. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all is the simplicity in which they conducted their lives after the White House. How different from former Presidents and First Ladies since then. Matthew Algeo did not sit in a library to research this story. He re-traced every mile that still survives, slept in every hotel still in business no matter how dilapidated, and visited most every home of friends where the Trumans stopped along the way. And what a wonderful post script to the story at the end…you’ll have to read it to find out what it is. Even if you’re not a Harry Truman fan, if you lived in the 50s this will bring back fond memories of a simpler time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book as it showed how a great man can be an average man. Following his presidency, Truman attempts to go back to civilian life by taking a car trip. The author travels the same roads and visits the same places. The local history is wonderful, especially for me as I grew up near Washington, PA, one of the overnight stops on Truman's travels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a charming book about a fun and interesting president and his beautiful relationship with his wife.
Murphy1937 More than 1 year ago
This is an amusing and touching story about President Truman's life after the White House and the times he lived in. If you grew up during that time, this book will have your memories flooding back as you recall the good and the bad of the fifties. Harry Truman and his family are presented in this book as most people of that time will remember them: good people who served their country well and then returned to "ordinary" life. Read this book no matter your age. You won't regret it.
4everyone More than 1 year ago
A heartwarming, touching vacation with the Trumans after his presidency. A very comfortable read and rewarding to revisit a time and people who believed in integrity, character and enriching activities which helped create substance and lasting relationships.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
knitter888 More than 1 year ago
It was a fun book to read and to learn about one of our Presidents. I would recommend this book to all who would like to know about history. I learned a few things that I did not know and it was pleasant reading.
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jgonn More than 1 year ago
Charming account of a President who did not sell his soul after he left office!
GWC More than 1 year ago
This book was pretty thin to start and then half of it focused on the background of the places they visited much of which was not particularly new information. I would have liked more informaations on the Trumans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting story that tells much about Harry as a man. Born and raised into humble beginnings, he fulfilled the American dream of acheivement. I acknowledge the difficulties he experienced in his term and how he rose to strength in making the difficult choices that were so necessary to the good of the country. I find it difficult, however, to overlook his highly partisan approach towards those he disagreed with. History has, rightly, been kind to him though he left office with an abismal approval rating. Had he not agreed to use the A bomb, who knows how much further damage the war would have created. It is a shame that so many of our current loudmouths do not both to study history to understand its nessessity and significance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago