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April 15, 2009

The First Summer

Kevin E. Dayhoff

As the first summer approaches following the departure from the White House of President George W. Bush, I am reminded of the story that in the first summer after President Harry Truman left office, he took a road trip with his family in which he visited Frederick.


I thought of this as I was reading that President Bush visited Alberta, Canada, last month to speak to about 1,500 invited guests.


Unfortunately, about 300 disruptive protestors also showed up. The Edmonton Sun reported that the protestors were “unruly” and several arrests were made of individuals who threatened the president in various ways.


In early February, The New York Times reported upon a Broadway show at the Cort Theater, “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush,” which featured comedian Will Ferrell.


Mr. Ferrell performs in front of “the projection of a supersize photo on the backdrop of the stage,” the likes of which is so foul and repulsive I would not even consider hinting upon its nature in a family-friendly column…


Oh, to be sure, The New York Times was only too delighted to explain the caricature, which was billed as representative of our 43rd president, in graphic detail.


And then there is the recent President Barack Obama great European apology tour in which the president never missed any opportunity to criticize President Bush and the previous administration – to the sheer delight of the elite, traditional American media.


Bear in mind, in not too distant memory, before the Obama revolution, it was considered undiplomatic and un-statesmanlike to behave in such a manner. Yet the mainstream media essentially praised President Obama for his cringe-worthy utterances.


One can only imagine the reaction if President Bush had traveled overseas and told the Europeans that President Bill Clinton enjoyed the attention of a certain intern and (to borrow from an August 2007 Washington Post op-ed by Dr. Jim Pelura): “Clinton that gave us the largest tax increase in history… (R)epeatedly ignored the actions of terrorists when they bombed the World Trade Towers in 1993, bombed our embassies abroad, attacked our men and women in uniform and tried to sink the USS Cole while docked in Yemen.”


Juxtapose these recent events with the story of President Truman’s first summer after he left office.


The story of his 1953 road trip had always remained a vague childhood memory acquired, most likely, at the dinner table of a large family that did not like President Truman’s politics, but admired the man. Imagine that.


I had never before seen the story in print. I had never been able to find an authoritative cite that President Truman had actually traveled around the country as a private citizen after he left office, until I noticed a short op-ed in The New York Times on April 5.


It was written by Matthew Algeo, and it was titled “Harry Truman leader of the freeway.”


Mr. Algeo begins: “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…”


“What made Truman, 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… But they remain famous, and surrounded by assistants and security agents.”


For someone who is constantly fascinated by any trivia about the American presidency, the bad memories of the last several decades certainly leaves one incredulous that a former president could actually feel free to move about the country without scores of secret service agents and hordes of onlookers, gawkers, or worse, protestors who just can’t give it up.


Any of us, who are well past the half century mark in years, can quickly marvel at– or shudder to think – how much has changed in our lifetime.


However, according to Mr. Algeo: “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…”


There is much to admire about President Truman. History, since he left the Oval Office, has been kind to him. One may quibble over his policies and political ideologies, but it hard to find personal fault with a former president who, after he left the office of the president of the most powerful nation in the world, “believed he could easily make the transition from leader of the free world to, as he put it, ‘plain, private citizen.’ ”


Nevertheless, “plain, private citizen” Mr. Truman; embarked the “first summer after leaving the White House (and) 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… And like countless other road trippers, they crashed with friends.”


My memory had always served me that President Truman stopped in Frederick. However I was not aware, that according to Mr. Algeo, he also stopped in Frostburg.


“… 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.’


“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.”


I was amused to read that “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 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.”


Compare and contrast this with the episodic, yet nevertheless, troubling accounts of President Clinton’s excessive taxpayer-paid expenses, since he left office. “The rent alone on Bill Clinton’s Harlem office,” Mr. Algeo reports, “was more than $500,000 last year.”


In reality, there is no such thing as the ‘good ole days;” however, I’ll take the genteel sensibilities of ‘days gone by’ anytime.


Mr. Algeo notes that 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.”


Dreaming of that “first summer” does cheer one up for awhile and then I wake up from my perch on the couch to hear the evening news and I realize the old adage: Cheer up, things could be worse. I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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