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A man of means by no means
January 13, 2010 11:16 AM   Subscribe

One hot June morning in 1953, a retired couple from western Missouri packed their Chrysler New Yorker with 11 suitcases and started driving east. A few hours later, they stopped at a diner in Hannibal, Mo., and ordered fruit plates and iced tea. “We thought we were getting by big as an unknown traveling couple until we went to the counter to pay the bill,” Harry Truman later wrote of that lunch. “Just as we arose from the table some county judges came in and the incog was off.” And thus began an excellent adventure of a type that happened once and will never happen again: The Harry and Bess Truman Ex-Presidential Road Trip.

The op-ed's author's book site is worth a look for some interesting artifacts including the Truman itinerary. There's some great color in a Kai Ryssdal interview (transcript). The WSJ review of the book is here, and somebody made a youtube travelogue of the journey that includes before/after pics of some of Harry & Bess's stops.

Self-derail: Perusing these links you may wonder why a former U.S. President was staying in motels, with the former First Lady logging their gas mileage from the shotgun seat. There was no pension for a former president at that time, the lecture circuit didn't exist yet, and after leaving office Truman's only income was his Army pension -- $733.79 in today's dollars. He was offered corporation positions but turned them down for ethical reasons. He took out a personal loan from a Washington bank shortly before losing his job, and he and his siblings sold their family farm shortly thereafter.

The Former Presidents Act of 1958, which applied retroactively to all living ex-presidents at the time, was passed largely out of Federal sheepishness at Harry Truman's financial straits; it provided him annual payments of $177,402.68 in today's dollars. (The other living ex-president at that time, multimillionaire Herbert Hoover, didn't need the money but accepted it to avoid embarrassing Truman.)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders (56 comments total) 124 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, hell yeah. This is what Metafilter is all about! I had no idea. Thanks!
posted by absalom at 11:19 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure Gerald Ford coulda gotten away this way, but he's dead, so yeah you're right it will never happen again.
posted by spicynuts at 11:21 AM on January 13, 2010


He was offered corporation positions but turned them down for ethical reasons.

Hell yeah! And, mind you, not legal reasons. Ethical ones. Yes, you really can (or could in 1953) be within the law but outside the bounds of morality.
posted by DU at 11:25 AM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


No ex-president should be pulling in $191,300 of taxpayer money on top of speaking fees, board member salaries, and investments. For gods sake... the Clintons and Bushes are worth well over $10 to 20 million and Obama is worth about $1 million. I say let them have the pension if they're willing to give up external income, but if they're going to be on the board of Monsanto or something, tough titty.
posted by crapmatic at 11:27 AM on January 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


IMHO The last honest president. I always have liked Harry.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 11:28 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love the idea of walking into a hardware store and finding an ex-president shopping for bolts (or whatever), no secret service or other government hangers-on. Difficult to imagine.
posted by maxwelton at 11:30 AM on January 13, 2010


I don't know how I thought "Kai Ryssdal" was supposed to be spelled, but it wasn't "Kai Ryssdal."
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:33 AM on January 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


Compare this to the Sarah Palin Bus Tour, which was mostly conducted on private jets.
posted by grounded at 11:33 AM on January 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


IMHO The last honest president. I always have liked Harry.

What reasons are you giving for excluding Jimmy Carter? Honest question.
posted by spicynuts at 11:36 AM on January 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


In Truman’s time, things were quite different. When he retired, 10 years before the Kennedy assassination, former presidents had no Secret Service protection. Nor were they entitled to pensions. Truman’s only income was an Army pension of $111.96 a month, and he refused to “commercialize” the presidency by accepting lucrative business offers or extravagant speaking fees.

I'm not a person who idealizes past generations, but, seriously. God damn.
posted by nanojath at 11:40 AM on January 13, 2010 [17 favorites]


In New Zealand stuff like this is pretty common, our last PM, Helen Clark, regularly goes alpine skiing and hiking without bodyguards. She just finished the routeburn track in the holidays.
posted by scodger at 11:45 AM on January 13, 2010


Gerald Ford, as portrayed in The Simpsons, seemed pretty likable:

Gerald Ford: Say, Homer, do you like football?
Homer: Do I ever!
Gerald Ford: Do you like nachos?
Homer: Yes, Mr. Ford.
Gerald Ford: Well, why don't you come over and watch the game and we'll have nachos, and then some beer.

I would imagine that media saturation changed things a lot for more recent presidents. By the end of Truman's term, some states were just getting their first commercially licensed television stations. Seeing pictures in the paper is one thing, but that's a still image. Toss a hat on, and you're incognito. But seeing someone in action makes them more real, and I'd imagine easier to spot, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:52 AM on January 13, 2010


Same goes in Canada. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark shows up at my bookstore now and then with his family and no goons. He's a really nice guy, and always genuine and cool with the customers who bug him for autographs.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 11:53 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


If Dubya thinks later generations will judge him more favorably than his contemporaries, as has happened with Harry Truman, he's sorely mistaken. This little story is just one reason why.
posted by tommasz at 11:55 AM on January 13, 2010


Joe Who?
posted by GuyZero at 11:55 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Helen who?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:58 AM on January 13, 2010


We have been lucky to, so often, have been led by great men.
posted by Malor at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2010


In New Zealand stuff like this is pretty common, our last PM, Helen Clark, regularly goes alpine skiing and hiking without bodyguards. She just finished the routeburn track in the holidays.

To be fair, I'm pretty sure NZ doesn't have a history of serious assassination attempts on its premiers; the US has had four successful assassinations and a basket of attempts that in some cases - Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt for example - came quite close.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2010


Harry was always a car guy. Excellent taste.
posted by shockingbluamp at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2010


My favorite story about Truman was how, when he became Roosevelt's VP, he honestly didn't know the depth of Roosevelt's illness at the time, as it was a closely guarded secret.

After he actually met Roosevelt in person at this time and was let in on the secret, he had a giant ZOMG reaction. Some of Truman's letters to his own trusted colleagues back in Missouri had passages like, "Uhh, not sure this was a good move. In deep shit. I think this guy's gonna die." Roosevelt died three months into the term.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:03 PM on January 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


Reminds me of a joke, which I am going to tell to take my mind off CNN telling me that hell has opened for business in Haiti.

So one day in 1992, Bill and Hillary are visiting Chicago, and decide to break away from their security detail. Bill is good at this so it works. They take a friend's car and go for a romantic drive, just the two of them, out to see Hillary's old haunts. Eventually, near her home town, they pull up to a gas station to fill up their friend's car. A good looking man of about Bill's age comes out to pump the gas. Hillary gets out of the car when she recognizes him and Bill can see them through the windshield talking animatedly, and finally embracing warmly. The attendant finishes pumping and hands Bill back his credit card, and Hillary gets back in the car, and they pull away. Bill says, "So, Hil, who was that fella back there?" And Hillary says, "Oh, just a boy I used to date in high school." Bill gives a chuckle and says, "Just think, honey, if you'da married him, you'd be the wife of a gas station attendant!" After a cold pause, Hillary responds, "Just think, Bill . . . If I'da married him, he'd be president of the United States."
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:12 PM on January 13, 2010 [36 favorites]


The older I get, the better Truman looks. Anyone know a good biography?
posted by RussHy at 12:14 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


My previous favorite story about Truman is that his daily routine during his presidency included a vigorous one- or two-mile walk ... around the White House grounds and neighborhood. His routine changed only slightly after a 1950 assassination attempt. It's easy to understand why the guy would be eager to retire as an anonymous citizen.
posted by muffuletta at 12:15 PM on January 13, 2010


Maybe we need a president named Clark?
posted by grounded at 12:18 PM on January 13, 2010


after reading TRUMAN by David McCullough ...i read and saw everything I cold get on harry. A good read.
posted by shockingbluamp at 12:21 PM on January 13, 2010


Anyone know a good biography?

David McCullough's "Truman". I liked it far better than his John Adams book.
posted by briank at 12:21 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


RussHy: David McCullough's bio is an interesting and accessible read.
posted by usonian at 12:24 PM on January 13, 2010


A little farther down the road in Frederick, Truman stopped at Carroll Kehne’s Gulf station for gas and a Coke. When Kehne asked him to give his mechanic, Albert Kefauver, a hard time for being a Republican, Truman declined. “It’s too hot to give anybody hell,” he explained. After Kehne died in 1994, his son found Truman’s Coke bottle and donated it to the local historical society.

That's one of the best paragraphs I've read all week. This is great.
posted by Spatch at 12:27 PM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is really awesome, thanks for posting it! Makes me think of that last episode of The West Wing where Jed Bartlett is contemplating his first day back on his farm, but then again, most things about the American Presidency make me think of Jed Bartlett.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:28 PM on January 13, 2010


HST just seemed like a good guy, particularly in his post-presidential years. This post reminded me of this story about Truman's presence at his presidential library:

Truman actively participated in the day-to-day operation of the Library, personally training museum docents and conducting impromptu "press conferences" for visiting school students. He frequently arrived before the staff and would often answer the phone to give directions and answer questions, telling surprised callers that he was the "man himself."


I just love the idea of calling a Presidential Library for directions, and having the former president himself answer the phone.
posted by marxchivist at 12:32 PM on January 13, 2010 [26 favorites]


I live next town over from our Secretary of State's husband. When he was President, it was next to impossible to get within a block of him. When he would go into the local Starbucks, they would close it off, wand everyone in there and the Secret Service would generally be freaking about this kind of stop. Now, as he is out of office longer and longer, he is not as closely guarded. I HAVE actually walked into a local hardware store and seen him. I used to see him all the time buying bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches at a local deli until his heart issues and I still see him walking the dog in town and getting ice cream. THe secret service is now about 10 to 15 yards behind him and in minivans when he is walking the town sidewalks. From what I am told, the difference is that when you are President, your schedule is public. Anyone will know where you are. Now, no one knows when he is in town or going to walk the street or visit a friend.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:41 PM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hmm...something makes me think that all though Harry sounds pretty approachable, crashing at the house of your National Committee Chair is still something quite different than Crashing on the couch of some dude you met at a random camp last year....

Sure, in both cases you are staying somewhere for free... but unless the two of you start the day with a wake-and-bake, killing the partial empties laying around the appartment, and asking wtf did we do after the game of beer pong and why is there a 6 inch hole cut into the ceiling... he's not the everyman you mighty think him to be...
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:02 PM on January 13, 2010


"Sure, in both cases you are staying somewhere for free... but unless the two of you start the day with a wake-and-bake, killing the partial empties laying around the appartment, and asking wtf did we do after the game of beer pong and why is there a 6 inch hole cut into the ceiling... he's not the everyman you mighty think him to be..."

I didn't know the everyman was a 23 year old frat guy. C'mon, this is pretty awesome.
posted by deacon_blues at 1:29 PM on January 13, 2010


What reasons are you giving for excluding Jimmy Carter? Honest question.

Good question. IMHO I just think that Harry projected his honesty much better.

i.e. Harry's response to the reporter that asked him about calling a music critic a SOB. "I didn't call him a SOB, he is a SOB, but I didn't call him one."
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 1:30 PM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I miss Truman, who was as down to earth as they come. Well, I wasn't around when he was president, but I miss him all the same.

Give em hell, Harry!
posted by krinklyfig at 1:38 PM on January 13, 2010


he's not the everyman you mighty think him to be...

No, never thought of him that way. His political career started as soon as he left the military, which is not an "everyman" lifestyle. What made him special is that the job never seemed to get to his head too much, unlike just about every other president. Well, except after WWII he sort of lost course, ended up involved in the far less popular Korean War, and was not liked much by the time he left office, though historically he has done very well.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:48 PM on January 13, 2010


Harry Truman is my favorite president. Probably the last one to be free fo the media houding that has plagued the presidency ever since. And he thought Kennedy was a showboating pansy.

Also, Nanukthedog, the image of Harry and Bess waking up on some random dude's couch, taking a bong rip, and shooting the shit warms my heart unimaginably.
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:27 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


His political career started as soon as he left the military, which is not an "everyman" lifestyle.

Not true. He spent three years as the owner of a haberdashery after the war (then it went belly-up) and then went back to working on his father's farm until he got himself appointed county road surveyor.
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:30 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not true. He spent three years as the owner of a haberdashery after the war (then it went belly-up) and then went back to working on his father's farm until he got himself appointed county road surveyor.

OK, I stand corrected, but that didn't last too long. His career didn't really consist of farm work or selling clothing.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:42 PM on January 13, 2010


Can anyone recommend a good bio other than McCollough's? I've read a ton on TR and McC's bio is by far the weakest, so he's not my first choice.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:24 PM on January 13, 2010


Ian A.T.: "I don't know how I thought "Kai Ryssdal" was supposed to be spelled, but it wasn't "Kai Ryssdal.""

Looks like a radio name taken from a losing scrabble hand.
posted by pwnguin at 4:25 PM on January 13, 2010


HST is the source of one of my all-time favorite quotes:

"Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day"

Whether he meant it literally, or intended some deeper metaphoric meaning, it's still an awesome quote, applicable to many situations in our daily life.
posted by motown missile at 4:38 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


He seems like a nice man, but, guys, Hiroshima? Nagasaki? The Korean war? Millions of men, women and children died because of him. Maybe he embodies the banality of evil?
posted by Baldons at 4:51 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


And millions more lives were saved because of his actions, including at least a million non-American lives of the "enemy". What's your point, other than to be a naive jack-off?
posted by Asparagirl at 5:08 PM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


@OHenryPacey: You may want to check out Robert H. Ferrell's work on Truman. He's written and/or edited several books on Truman, i.e. Truman and Pendergast, The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman, etc.

Robert Dallek has written a brief bio of Truman.

Growing up in Missouri, I grew up in a family of Truman Democrats. My grandfather thought Harry Truman walked on water. Before he passed away when I was five, he gave me a special commemorative pin he'd received for the anniversary of Truman's birth. It was one of his prized possessions and I still have it today. I think it meant a lot to him that a man from Missouri, a farmer just like him, had risen to the Presidency.

One of my favorite Truman stories involves Jerry Litton. He was another Missourian, who, after a hell of a lot of work, was elected to the US House of Representatives. Prior to entering politics, when Litton was in high school, he had the chance to meet Truman at his home in Independence. Litton asked Harry about entering politics. Truman told Litton he had two options: become indebted to the state political machine like he had or amass enough wealth that he could avoid relying on the machine. Litton opted to create his own fortune and went on to a promising political career before abruptly ended when, in 1976, his plane crashed.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 5:31 PM on January 13, 2010


PBS' American Experience did a good bio of Truman for their "Presidents" series. You can view it online.
posted by paddbear at 6:45 PM on January 13, 2010


OK, I stand corrected, but that didn't last too long. His career didn't really consist of farm work or selling clothing.

Maybe not his post-war career, but he was already thirty-two when he joined the army. Before that, he'd been a bank clerk, a farmer, and a failed land prospector (he was really good at making stuff grow, but sucked as a businessman).


He seems like a nice man, but, guys, Hiroshima? Nagasaki? The Korean war? Millions of men, women and children died because of him. Maybe he embodies the banality of evil?


As far as the decision about The Bomb, it's an enormously complex issue. Truman made the decision to usher in the age of the atom in August 1945, rather than another time, in the hopes that it would cause the war to end sooner, and hopefully reducing the total number of deaths. We can't say for certain whether he succeeded, but the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an order of magnitude smaller than the War Dept.'s estimates of Japanese deaths from an invasion of Japan. During the remaining seven years of his presidency, Truman fought hard against nuclear proliferation, prevented the American nuclear program from coming under military, rather than civilan control, and forbade the use of nuclear weapons in Korea, against the recommendations from his top generals and advisors.

Furthermore, you can't accuse Truman of starting the Korean war. North Korea invaded South Korea, a member of the UN (this was back when the UN actually did stuff). The premise of the UN was that if a member nation was invaded, all other member nations would rise to its defense. This was the premise of the League of Nations a generation earlier, but when put to test (japan's invasion of manchuria, germany's annexation of the sudatenland, italy's invasion of ethiopia), the League balked rather than risk a war. It was the overwhelming belief at the time that the mistakes that led to World War II not be repeated lest they lead to World War III, especially given the nuclear threat. (I think McCollough actually opines that had nuclear weapons not been used previously, the gravitas of the prospect of such war would not be as well understood by world leaders, and actually helped prevent Korea from being a stepping stone into a third world war).


sorry for the rant, but I will defend Harry Truman to my last breath
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:15 PM on January 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


The Korean war?

How in the hell was the Korean War Truman's fault?
posted by rodgerd at 2:07 AM on January 14, 2010


The Korean war?

Oh yeah, I remember that one. That's the one where one of this nation's greatest generals decided he wanted to invade China and start World War 3, and was summarily FIRED by Truman. You know how many Generals of the United States Army have been fired?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:13 AM on January 14, 2010


As I understand it, W. is the first President since this was passed to NOT get lifetime Secret Service protection.

Just sayin'.
posted by Eideteker at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2010


Wonderful post, thank you.

I loved this part:
At the 21 Club the maître d’hôtel was careful to seat them far away from Gov. Thomas Dewey.
Dewey defeats Truman for a better table.
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:16 AM on January 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Dewey defeats Truman for a better table

I laughed out loud. Thank you.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:25 AM on January 14, 2010


Wonderful post. Unexpectedly refreshing somehow. One of those huh moments which make life the better. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 12:18 PM on January 14, 2010


Nice work with the "King of the Road" post title.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:00 PM on January 14, 2010


As far as the decision about The Bomb, it's an enormously complex issue. Truman made the decision to usher in the age of the atom in August 1945, rather than another time, in the hopes that it would cause the war to end sooner, and hopefully reducing the total number of deaths. We can't say for certain whether he succeeded, but the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an order of magnitude smaller than the War Dept.'s estimates of Japanese deaths from an invasion of Japan.

It's also worth noting that the American perspective of the Japanese at the time was limited and biased. Most Americans didn't take much interest in Asia. When detailed reports about the Rape of Nanking were published in the New York Times, Reader's Digest and Time Magazine, the public didn't believe they were real. However, the US government knew that the accounts were accurate, and that they painted a grim picture of how the Japanese would probably act towards their enemies in wartime.

From the American government's perspective, then, we were faced with an enemy that had reportedly savagely butchered between 300,000-600,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers, bayoneted babies and children, raped women and killed somewhere on the order of 90,000 POW's who had committed the dishonorable sin of surrendering to their enemy. Estimates showed that a war with Japan would be vicious and unpredictable, with high casualties on both sides. Intelligence recommendations were to prevent this at all costs.

I think the mass murder Truman committed with the use of atomics is horrific. But I do understand why he did so.
posted by zarq at 9:55 AM on January 19, 2010


Brilliant, wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this with us!
posted by zarq at 9:56 AM on January 19, 2010


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