I read in last Sunday’s paper that former President Barack Obama has been called for jury duty in his home town of Chicago. Imagine that. Twelve men and women in the jury box, and one of them used to live in the White House. There is something remarkable about a system of government where a person can be a leader on the world stage in January, and by November that same man can be working for $25 a day hearing arguments in traffic court.
It reminded me of President George W. Bush’s comment about his transition from the Oval Office back to ordinary life in Crawford, Texas. “Laura sent me into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher,” he quipped, “telling me it was part of my new domestic agenda.” Such humility is not new, of course. For 35 years, since leaving office in 1981, President Jimmy Carter has taught Sunday school at his Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, for several weeks out of the year. He’s still doing it at age 93.
When Michael Duffy came to Harding for the ASI program in 2016, he shared stories from “The President’s Club,” a book he co-authored with Nancy Gibbs. It details the rivalries and relationships among all the ex-Chief Executives since Herbert Hoover. I read it, spellbound by the unlikely pairings. Dwight D. Eisenhower giving advice to John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs. Bill Clinton calling Richard Nixon for insights into foreign affairs, and also getting schooled in how to do a proper military salute from an ailing Ronald Reagan.
But my all-time favorite story about an unemployed commander in chief involves Harry Truman. He’s the man jolted into the presidency in 1945 when FDR died of a brain hemorrhage. He’s the man who made the agonizing decision to use nuclear weapons to end the war with Japan. He’s the man elected to his own term three years later, the same day the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a headline announcing his defeat by Thomas Dewey. And he’s the one who famously said, “The buck stops here.”
In 1953, several months after passing the buck to General Eisenhower, Harry Truman and his wife Bess piled into their Chrysler and headed out on a 19-day road trip across the country. They did not use a chauffeur — the former president did the driving himself. No press photographers accompanied them. Bess brought her own camera, since they were planning to visit friends. They did not have speaking engagements or book-signings or security details or armored escort vehicles. They may or may not have locked the car each night.
In fact, as Michael Algeo reports in his book “Truman’s Excellent Adventure,” the former first couple traveled on the cheap: stopping at diners and ordering fruit plates, staying in roadside motels and even spending the night with friends. Yes, the leader of the free world was couch surfing. No such thing as presidential pensions back then.
They drove from Missouri to New York City, where they splurged a little. Harry and Bess took in two Broadway shows and went to a few fancy restaurants. “At the 21 Club,” Algeo notes, “the Maitre-D was careful to seat them far away from Governor Dewey.”
In Pennsylvania, President Truman was even pulled over by a state patrolman. He had been driving too slowly down the Turnpike and blocking traffic, with a long line of cars honking behind him. To this day, Presidential motorcades still cause gridlock, but not because POTUS is too soft on the gas. Wouldn’t it have been something if Truman had ended up in traffic court, with another ex-president on the jury?
I’ll admit that I love the era that made this adventure possible. At the same time, I realize that nostalgia for the 1950s is problematic. America back then was safer and more innocent in some ways, but it was also in the throes of a centuries-old racism that was barely beginning to crack. Opportunities for women in those days were extremely limited. The perfect suburban family depicted in the classic sitcom “Leave it to Beaver” was — to some extent — a fantasy. All of those things are true.
But you might understand your grandparents a little bit more if you realize that they remember a world when the most famous retiree in America could mosey around the nation’s highways in a Chrysler packed with 11 suitcases and his childhood sweetheart, stopping for iced tea at cheap diners, economizing on chicken dinners that cost 70 cents each and checking into motel rooms that had curtains, but no bullet-proof windows.
And isn’t it marvelous that we live in a world where a person can serve the country in the White House and then turn around and serve the neighborhood in the jury box?