Truman – American Grace and Self-Reliance

Published: July 13, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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Last Wednesday, I wrote about the “sweet deals” of perks and privileges accorded the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. While I believe they do an incredibly difficult job for little compensation, nonetheless, I believed that, ethically, they should release their expenses as well as the names of individuals or groups who pay those expenses on a variety of free trips around the country and abroad.

John Baldwin, a frequent visitor of this site, sent me a story about former President Harry Truman’s his life after the presidency. I thought it was worth sharing this New York Times commentary (Apr. 5, 2009) by Matthew Algeo, who authored the 2009 book, “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure.” Algeo describes how the former president and his wife attempted to travel around the country undercover.


“What made Truman,” Algeo writes, “less than six months removed from the presidency, believe he could travel incognito in the first place? It’s true that former presidents quickly drop from public consciousness. (Did you know that George W. Bush is preparing to throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener? Or that Bill Clinton gave a speech to the European Union Parliament in Brussels last week — in the shadow of President Obama’s celebrated European tour?) But they remain famous, and surrounded by assistants and security agents.

“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. Like his hero Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who forsook power to return to his farm, Truman believed he could easily make the transition from leader of the free world to, as he put it, ‘plain, private citizen.’  So, that first summer after leaving the White House, Truman and his wife, Bess, did what ordinary Americans do every summer: they took a vacation. For 19 days they drove around the country, from their home in Independence, Mo., to the East Coast and back again.

“Harry and Bess Truman were frugal travelers. They ate a lot of fruit plates at roadside diners. In Decatur, Ill., they stayed at the Parkview, a motel on Route 36 where rooms cost about five bucks a night. (That motel is now a prison for work-release inmates.) And like countless other road trippers, they crashed with friends. In Indianapolis, they stayed at the home of Frank McKinney, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and his wife, Margaret. When the McKinneys’ daughter Claire came home late from a night of dancing, she found the former president banging away on the living room piano.

“In Frostburg, Md., the Trumans stopped at the Princess Restaurant, where they splurged on chicken dinners (70 cents each). The cook, George Pappas Jr., a World War II veteran, recognized his old commander in chief right away. Telephones all over town started ringing, and soon business was booming at the Princess. ‘I had been there before,’ Truman wrote, ‘but in those days they didn’t make such a fuss over me. I was just a senator then.’ …

“In New York City, the manager of the Waldorf Towers offered the Trumans free use of a suite, an offer they gratefully accepted. The former first couple spent eight days sightseeing in the city. They took in Broadway shows (‘Wonderful Town,’ ‘My Three Angels’) and ate at trendy restaurants. (At the 21 Club the maître d’hôtel was careful to seat them far away from Gov. Thomas Dewey.) Everywhere the Trumans went, they took cabs.

“On the drive home, a state trooper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike pulled Truman over for careless driving. He had been blocking traffic in the left lane, cruising along at 55 miles per hour with a line of cars behind him.

“In Columbus, Ohio, the Trumans checked into the Deshler Hotel, prompting squeals of delight from hundreds of teenage girls attending a Future Homemakers of America convention there. (The elegant Deshler was long ago replaced with an office tower; the F.H.A. is now the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, and nearly a quarter of its members are male.)

“The trip taught Truman — and the rest of America — that former presidents are anything but plain, private citizens. Shortly after he got home, he lamented to a friend, ‘I can’t seem to get from under that awful glare that shines on the White House.’

“In January 1958, Truman was forced to sell off the family farm in Grandview, Mo., to make ends meet. Later that year, Congress granted former presidents pensions of $25,000 a year plus $50,000 for office expenses.

“Today, former presidents receive nearly $200,000 a year, and practically unlimited office expenses. The rent alone on Bill Clinton’s Harlem office was more than $500,000 last year. And former presidents rarely drive themselves anywhere.

“In 1953, The Times said of Harry and Bess Truman’s trip: ‘It is … as it should be that an American ex-president, accompanied only by his wife, with no retinue and no ceremony, can drive his own car around the country and no one think it unusual. It cheers one up, somehow.’

“More than half a century later, it still does.”


  1. I wish we could go back to the 50s for simplicity of life.

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