Rolling Thunder, the massive, patriotic biker celebration that occupies the nation’s capitol every Memorial Day weekend, has been widely regarded as a public nuisance throughout the Obama Administration. This year was a little different.
For one thing, last Friday The Washington Post ran a sympathetic, 2200-word portrait of Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller by Post writer Steve Hendrix.
The story notes that President George W. “Bush was very good to” Rolling Thunder. “Other White Houses,” Hendrix quotes Muller, “not so much.”
During the Carter Administration, the Pentagon wanted Rolling Thunder to pay an $11,000 surcharge for the President’s participation in the event. Obama once stuck his head into a meeting Muller attended but that was about it. Bush, at least had the grace to welcome home Muller – who was a sergeant with the Fourth Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Vietnam – in the White House driveway.
This election year, Muller is rooting for Donald Trump. Many veterans are and Hendrix asked Muller what he thought of an insult Trump threw at Senator John McCain last summer.
McCain is probably the nation’s most famous, former prisoner of war. McCain was a Navy pilot who was shot down by a surface-to-air missile on Oct. 26, 1967. The explosion broke both his arms and his right leg. He ejected, landed in a lake and did not drown only because he was able to deploy his life vest with his teeth. He was tortured by the North Vietnamese. “I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth,” McCain told the U.S. News years later. “I was in such a bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious.” McCain was tortured multiple times while he was held prisoner. He was eventually released on March 14, 1973.
Ten months ago, Trump said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay?”
Muller said that he was “not bothered by,” Trump’s insult. “Sometimes people say things. They don’t have time to think, and they say the wrong things.”
Trump, who is about to become the Republican Presidential Nominee, became the first major politician to speak to participants in Rolling Thunder in years. He gave a speech to about 5,000 of the event’s estimated 300,000 riders near the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
Rolling Thunder is still an event intended to promote awareness of prisoners of war and men missing in action so Trump’s participation was ironic. Rolling Thunder, is now concerned with numerous veteran’s issues, but it started as an event by Vietnam veterans for Vietnam veterans and Trump was a “draft dodger” – a very quaint and politically incorrect term for men of Trump’s age who either cringe or lie when somebody asks them what they did in the war.
Trump received a student deferment from military service (Selective Service classification 2-S) on July 18, 1964 when he enrolled in Fordham University He was reclassified as eligible for military service (1-A) on November 22, 1966 when he left Fordham. As a result of his reclassification, he took a physical and was found fit to serve on December 15, 1966 but he got another student deferment when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. So far, so good. The Army needed educated officers.
Trump graduated from Penn in the spring of 1968, the year graduate school deferments ended – a year that saw thousands of recent college graduates drafted into the Army and the Marines – but this time Trump was reclassified as a “1-Y,” a young man who was “available for military service, but qualified for the military only in the event of war or national emergency.” Since Vietnam was not technically “a war,” Trump did not have to serve. He has said that between the time he passed his physical examination in 1966 and the time he became exempt from service in Vietnam he developed a bone spur in one of his feet. Earlier this year in Iowa, Trump said he couldn’t remember which foot had had the bone spur.
Trump’s campaign staff tells a different and more absurd story. According to the Trumpkins, their man was willing to serve but he received a low number in the draft lottery that was instituted the year after Trump graduated from Penn. There was no draft lottery when it was Trump’s turn to go. When Trump was eligible, older men were drafted first, so that 22-year-olds were much more likely to be conscripted than 18-year-olds. That was what was considered just then. But, in a press release earlier this year, Trump’s aides asserted, “When the draft occurred, they never got near his number and he was therefore exempt from serving (in the) military…. Although he was not a fan of the Vietnam War, yet another disaster for our country, had his draft number been selected he would have proudly served and he is tremendously grateful to all those who did.”
Except, of course, even if his number had come up Trump would not have had to serve. His draft classification remained “1-Y” until he was reclassified as “4F” which means “unfit for service,” on February 1, 1972. In 1968, affluent young men routinely avoided Vietnam by paying friendly doctors to invent an imaginary illness or medical condition. So some young men had to fight and die and others did not. Trump went to work for his father instead of Vietnam and he has has never been exactly guilt-stricken about it. In an off the cuff conversation in 1997 with Howard Stern about sexual promiscuity and venereal disease Trump said “I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world. It is a dangerous world out there. It’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam-era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
None of this is secret and despite it all Trump is still the favorite of a lot of veterans besides Artie Muller. Trump has espoused numerous Veteran’s causes.
He also likes bikers. Trump told Bloomberg Politics he was speaking at the rally “in honor of the great bikers who have been totally supportive of my campaign, and now I want to be supportive of them.”
“Look at all these bikers,” Trump told the crowd last Sunday. “Do we love the bikers? Yes. We love the bikers.”
And veterans. In the same speech Trump acknowledged veterans “have been treated so badly in this country” and vowed to remedy that. He promised that after he is elected veterans in need of care could visit private doctors rather than waiting for an appointment at a Veteran’s Administration hospital “and we’ll pay for it.”
Trump was invited to speak to Rolling Thunder participants. The Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, were not. Muller told the Post about Hillary Clinton, “Kiss the country goodbye if she gets into office,”
Neither Sanders nor Hillary was in Vietnam either. Sanders petitioned his draft board for “conscientious objector” status during Vietnam. Clinton, whose husband used political connections to avoid military service when he graduated in 1968, protested against the war. She did claim to have come “under sniper fire” in Bosnia during a trip there in 1996. When video surfaced that contradicted Clinton’s claim, and showed her being presented with a gift by an eight-year-old girl instead, she explained, “I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement,”
Who did what during Vietnam isn’t relevant anymore because most of the electorate wasn’t born until after the war ended. The point of Rolling Thunder has grown fainter as the event has grown bigger and as its founders have aged. But it is still the largest one-day gathering of bikers in the country. And the people who attend it and identify with it do represent a piece of the electoral pie that has been taken for granted and belittled for decades. The Rolling Thunder riders are what used to be called “the hardhats;” The plainspoken people who fight the wars and know how to make things and do things.
Trump spoke to and was welcomed by Rolling Thunder because what he says resonates with that crowd. And Trump’s appearance, simply because he is Trump, elevated the importance of this year’s event. So it was a win for both Trump and Rolling Thunder.
It is usually hard to tell what exactly Trump is saying or what the words that fall out of his mouth mean so it isn’t yet clear to whom Donald Trump thought he was talking on Sunday. But somebody in his campaign is probably smart enough to know that he was talking to the new hardhats.
Which is why it seems like a shame that neither Clinton nor Sanders was invited to speak. At the least it would have been fun to find out who they think all those people who ride in Rolling Thunder are. Maybe Sanders would have said that back in the day he was ready to go to prison for his beliefs. It would be interesting to see how something like that might play with the Rolling Thunder crowd in 2016. Who knows what Hillary might have said if she had been invited and if she had accepted.
Best of all, it might have been illuminating to find out now who besides Donald Trump would think that talking to Rolling Thunder was worth the bother.
But it didn’t happen in 2016. Maybe in 2020.