Rolling Thunder Endorses Bush

WaPo — Focus Swings to Vietnam, With a Roar

A younger generation of war veterans swept into town yesterday, shifting the tone of the city’s Memorial Day celebrations from the long-ago heroism of World War II to the still-raw wounds of Vietnam.

Clad in leather, astride gleaming Harleys, they trailed American flags and the black flags that honor U.S. prisoners of war and military members missing in action. With horns blaring and fists raised, they rode into Washington more than 400,000 strong, according to organizers of the 17th annual Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom,” to pay homage to buddies who never made it home.

On the Mall, long lines of solemn visitors made the pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to find and touch the carved names of those they knew and loved.

“It took a lot to get the courage up to come down here,” said Curt Steur, 54, a lanky former Marine from Bucks County, Pa., who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. “To come down here and to see names on a granite wall, when you knew the people behind those names. . . .”

“It’s rough,” said his teary-eyed buddy, a hulking man in a camouflage jacket who had a wild reddish-white ponytail and gave his name only as Willy.

The Rolling Thunder event, a Memorial Day weekend tradition, dominated the heart of the nation’s capital. Large crowds still flocked to the new National World War II Memorial, which was dedicated Saturday. Thousands more assembled last night for a concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra on the Capitol’s West Lawn.

But World War II veterans and concertgoers had to pick their way around barricades erected along major thoroughfares for Rolling Thunder’s noon parade. And from the time the riders began assembling at the Pentagon at 7 a.m. until their final looping tour of the Mall late yesterday, their engines reverberated through the city, adding a low rumbling tone beneath the cicadas’ high, incessant hum.

This is an interesting event, although one about which I have mixed feelings. Washington, like most big cities, has a massive traffic problem. Yet, for three days in a row, the major artery in town–Constitution Avenue and the area around the Mall–were blocked off to regular traffic for special events. I understood it for Saturday’s dedication of the WWII Memorial, which was an officially-sanctioned event, exceedingly rare, and was a ripe terrorist target. But imposing great inconvenience on DC area residents and tourists alike in order to allow groups to rally in support of some cause or another makes no sense at all.

They started blocking Constitution Ave. off before midnight Saturday and, indeed, I got trapped by it as I was trying to get back out to the suburbs. Fortunately, I’ve now driven in DC enough to know alternate routes back out. I was back in town yesterday and went back to the Mall to see the WWII Memorial again (along with other sights) with friends. The place was fantastically crowded still with veterans coming to see the memorials, but they had to contend with thousands of bikers whizzing around, making an awful racket, parking all over the place, and blocking pedestrian access across roads for long stretches. It was a logistical nightmare. Still, if we’re going to create this inconvenience for anyone, it’s hard to argue that these Vietnam vets shouldn’t be at the head of the line.

The contrast between the WWII and Korea vets roaming around the Mall with their families and the Rolling Thunder crowd couldn’t have been more stark. The older vets were almost to a man clean cut. The Rolling Thunder vets, no longer exactly spring chickens in their own right, were the stereotypical dirty bikers, clad in various Harley Davidson paraphenalia, unkempt hair and beards, and otherwise not looking like pillars of the community. It’s actually somewhat amusing seeing men in their 60s looking like that, especially since they’re of my dad’s generation. My dad, himself a Vietnam veteran and motorcycle rider, would have been much more at home with the WWII guys than the Rolling Thunder gang.

Still, looks are often deceiving. The vast majority of these bikers are almost certainly solid citizens despite their maintenace of the rather dated Easy Rider-esque biker image. My dad has had a few encounters with Harley clubs when he’s been out on the road with the bike and has always been impressed–and surprised–by how friendly and helpful they are, since he doesn’t exactly look like one of them–and even drives a Japanese bike.

This part of the WaPo story is amusing:

The riders will be out in force again today for Washington’s first Memorial Day parade in more than 60 years. But yesterday’s rally was the big event, made even more meaningful for many by an impromptu address by telephone from President Bush.

Bush also met at the White House with the leaders of Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit group dominated by Vietnam-era veterans but dedicated to veterans of all wars. With a special White House escort, the group’s president, Artie Muller, and seven other riders were able to steer their bikes straight up to the South Portico, where a smiling Bush greeted them with a big thumbs-up and led them to the Oval Office.

Rolling Thunder, which claims 82 chapters in the United States and abroad, has endorsed Bush over the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), and the Bush campaign turned out to capitalize on that endorsement. Two members of Bush’s Cabinet joined the Rolling Thunder parade: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, who showed up for his sixth Rolling Thunder ride decked out in black jeans, a black vest and black sunglasses.

Although Bush never saw combat and Kerry is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, many in the Rolling Thunder crowd demonstrated little affection for their brother-in-arms. As they rolled across the Memorial Bridge, around the Lincoln Memorial and down Constitution Avenue, bikers displayed signs reading “Stop Kerry” and “Vietnam Vets against Kerry.”

In a written statement, Kerry’s campaign said, “Nobody has worked harder on veterans and POW-MIA issues than John Kerry.” The Kerry statement added that Bush is “misleading Rolling Thunder about his commitment to our veterans and military families.”

Bob Nowak, 52, a retired Navy man from Aroda, Va., who did two tours in Vietnam, said veterans such as himself despise Kerry for his decision to protest the war in the early 1970s.

Nowak remembers returning from Vietnam in 1973 aboard an aircraft carrier loaded with thousands of sailors in their dress whites. “As we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, there were people waiting for us. And they threw garbage on us,” Nowak recalled. “That was about the time Kerry was throwing his [ribbons] away. It’s kind of hard to forget either of them.”

Update: Glenn Reynolds has a couple of amusing photos sent in by a reader. He also observes, “[T]his suggests — as I’ve mentioned before — that Kerry has been mistaken to play up the Vietnam angle so much.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. chris says:

    Mr. Joyner,
    Take the Metro, man. You save time and gas, and you might have gotten the chance to talk to some (more) vets.The week’s activities were no inconvenience to me, particularly after I thought about who we were honoring.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I took the Metro in town Sunday, but there’s no point in me trying to do it otherwise–I live 35 minutes away from the nearest Metro stop. It takes me longer to drive to a Metro station and find a parking spot than it does to just drive into town–and I don’t have to wait for 15 stops as I ride in. Further, they quit running the Metro later in the evening. There’s no way for me to get from DC to my home late at night using their system.