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July 05, 2013 9:10 am

Lawrence at Large: Harry Truman’s memorable road trip

Written by Tom Lawrence

The Pennsylvania trooper was just doing his job that hot summer day 60 years ago today.

The big black Chrysler New Yorker was driving too slow in the left lane, and a long line of traffic was backed up behind it. Pennsylvania State Trooper Manley Stampler, whose car was not equipped with lights, signaled for the driver to pull over to the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on July 5, 1953.

When Stampler peered into the car, he got the shock of his life. The driver was Harry S. Truman, less than six months removed from serving as president of the United States.

No Secret Service agent at the wheel. No staffers eager to serve the former most powerful man on earth. No reporters pushing mics, notebooks and cameras into his face.

Just Harry and Bess Truman of Independence, Mo., on a trip from their home from the East Coast.

Matthew Algeo tells this amazing, amusing tale in the 2009 book “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.” It’s an excellent read, perfect for a lazy summer day.

But back to the traffic stop. Imagine such an incident today involving a former president and his wife.

Consider Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on the open road, which is at least somewhat possible.

Ponder George H.W. and Barbara Bush out for a spin, maybe with George W. and Laura Bush along for the ride. That is very doubtful.

Can you even picture Bill and Hillary Clinton in the same car?

But 60 years ago, a former president and his wife, freshly removed from the White House, went for a extended trip in America. They were alone, and they stopped at roadside diners, where they ordered from the menu and waited for their food like everyone else, often spending a total of $2 for their meal.

Harry pumped his own gas and sipped a bottle of pop as he did so at one gas station. He shook hands and chatted, and commented on the heat just like every other tired driver.

They sometimes stayed with friends along the way, and when they stopped at a motel, they chose an affordable option. One motel bill was about $5 for the night, Algeo reports in the book.

The Trumans had to be sensible with their money, just like a lot of couples out on a road trip today. Harry didn’t get a presidential pension — it didn’t exist back then. He had made $100,000 a year as president but was now making about $112 a month, the amount his Army pension paid for his service as a colonel in World War I.

Once the Trumans got to New York City in late June 1953, they did take advantage of their fame, just as they did when Truman paid a reported $1 for his gleaming new car. They were given a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and they attended shows on Broadway.

Frankly, it all made them feel good. Truman had left the presidency under a cloud of scandal, and the Korean War was unpopular.

His popularity rate had plummeted to 22 percent when he returned to Missouri. But he was itching to move after eight years at the helm of the nation, so following five quiet months at home, the Trumans hit the road.

Harry made speeches and basked in the love of the people. As word spread that the Trumans were traveling without staff or security, the story grew even more popular.

Harry S. Truman had been a politician for 30 years. After the war, he failed as a haberdasher — a favorite term of my dad, who loved Truman. A haberdasher sells men’s clothing and accessories, and the dapper Truman, who loved fashion and fine clothing, knew how to wear it but not how to sell it.

He was elected a Jackson County, Mo., county judge in 1922, and served a decade in the office. It’s the equivalent of a county commissioner. Then in 1934, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he happily served for 10 years before he was persuaded to run for vice president with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.

When FDR died shortly after his fourth term began, Truman served that term, and he was elected in his own right in 1948. He attempted a run for a third term in 1952, but voters rejected him in the New Hampshire primary, and he headed home.

Truman was a true man of the people, a middle-class husband and father who served his country for most of his life and then spent 20 years writing, walking around his hometown and continuing to serve as a sterling example of how an honest, decent man lives.

Will we see his like again, in or out of the White House? That seems doubtful, and that is very regrettable.

Of course, Truman was like most American husbands in another respect. His wife, whom he dubbed “The Boss,” knew how to deflate his ego, even when the former president was on the receiving end of a lecture from a state trooper.

Harry Truman smiled as Manley wrapped things up. The trooper had decided not to give the 33rd president of the United States a ticket.

But Bess made sure she had the final word.

“Don’t worry trooper,” she said. “I’ll watch him.”

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