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What's changed since Truman's trip?

Matthew Algeo

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: As President Obama gets to work on the remaining 1,350 days of his term, he's probably not thinking much about what happens after he leaves office. And really, he won't have much to worry about, financially. He'll have to raise some money for his library, that's about it. Otherwise, he'll have a pension, an office and a staff, as well as an expense account. Wasn't always that way for former chief executives, though. Our former colleague here at Marketplace, Matthew Algeo, has a new book out about one key event in Harry Truman's post-presidency, called "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure."

MATTHEW ALGEO: In the summer of 1953, right after he left office, he decided to take a long car trip. And he loved cars, he loved traveling. And so he and Bess packed the Chrysler with 11 suitcases and drove from their home in Independence, Mo., to the East coast and back. Nineteen days, 2,500 miles, no Secret Service, nobody. No attendants, nothing. They just went by themselves.

Ryssdal: Do me a favor and set the scene. Put us in a car in 1953 on a road trip like this. What was it like?

ALGEO: Well, it was pretty hot. That's one thing. There was primitive form of air conditioning. Harry's car didn't have it. Harry never really believed in air conditioning. You wouldn't see many super highways at the time. There were no interstates. You would have spent a lot of time eating at roadside diners. You wouldn't see any McDonald's. You wouldn't see any motel chains either. It took you longer to get from A to B in 1953 then it does today.

Ryssdal: When he left the White House, what was Harry Truman's bank balance. I mean, he was not a rich guy with a cushion to sit on, was he?

ALGEO: What his bank balance was when he left the White House. Nobody really knows. When it came to talking about money, Harry Truman didn't like to talk about it. It is known, however, that he took out a loan from a Washington bank shortly before he left office. And then in early 1958 he had to sell his family's farm in Granville, Mo., to help make ends meet. So clearly in that period, 53-58, there were some financial issues in the Truman household.

Ryssdal: What about pensions? I mean, he was president for almost eight years. He was in the senate for a while. Didn't he get a government pension, too?

ALGEO: No, he had very unfortunate timing, really. Because he left the senate in 1945, and the senate did not begin receiving pensions until 1946. So we missed out on that. And ex-presidents at the time did not receive a pension. So his only income actually was $111.96 month. That's what he got for his army service during War World I. Ironically his almost eight years as commander-in-chief didn't count as credit toward that pension, so that was his only income.

Ryssdal: Did his condition, did the fact that he didn't have very much when he left the White House influence the way ex-presidents are treated today?

ALGEO: In one respect for sure. In 1958 after word got out that he had to sell the family farm, Congress finally passed the Presidential Pension Act, pensions of $25,000 a year to ex-presidents, as well as office expenses and postage. Now ex-presidents get about $190,000 a year, plus pretty much unlimited expenses.

Ryssdal: And whatever they decide to accept for speaking fees and membership on corporate boards and all that.

ALGEO: Yeah, yeah, that really changed with Gerald Ford. He was the first ex-president to make use of his name. And since then that's kinda been the standard. Big speaking fees, big book deals. Harry had a book deal, but it didn't turn out to make him very much money. But he didn't want to do anything that would, he called it commercializing the presidency. He didn't even take speaking fees beyond an honorarium. I remember when the Clintons released their income tax returns, and Bill Clinton had made millions in speaking fees since leaving office, and Leon Pannetta said we've come a long way since Harry Truman.

Ryssdal: Matthew Algeo used to work here. He writes books now. His most recent is called "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip." Matthew, thanks a bunch.

ALGEO: You're welcome Kai.

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