Rolling Thunder 2009

May 23, 2009

All Posts, Features

President Barack Obama almost snubbed Rolling Thunder Friday. Then at the last minute he changed his mind. Or, maybe his basketball game ended early.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, “The president stopped by while members of Rolling Thunder were meeting with administration officials about veterans’ issues,” Nick Shapiro, a propagandist with the Ministry of Truth, told the White House press pool. “He was very happy to meet with them.” Shapiro described the meeting as “brief but cordial.”

Shapiro was unable to say if the President was as happy to meet the veterans as he has said he would be to meet with the President of Iran. Given the spontaneity of the meeting, one would guess not so much.

As recently as May 15th, the White House was refusing to even acknowledge Rolling Thunder. Then the President agreed to allow an official to accept a letter from the group. Friday morning, the situation had evolved a little more and the White House announced that unnamed “officials” had agreed to actually “meet” with representatives of Rolling Thunder. Then, at the last minute, the big boss himself dropped in.

Whine if you must about losing your job and your house and your wife and your dog, the respect given to veterans was very much greater under the tyranny of George W. Bush. That is unless you are talking about veteran’s benefits or something tangible like that. But symbolically, veterans were much more important to Bush than they are to Obama.

Last year representatives of Rolling Thunder gave the President an official Rolling Thunder cut. The former President smirked and pulled on the garment and either he tried to dance or he tried to walk. With that guy who could tell. Whatever it was, he definitely did not throw his leg over a motorcycle. But, he smirked very respectfully.

Saturday morning the Washington Post reported that the cooler reception given to Rolling Thunder this year showed “The culture of the White House appear(s) to have changed.”

Whether the cultural change on Pennsylvania Avenue is proper or rude has not yet been brought up for debate and probably never will be. On the other hand, it is a stark fact that Rolling Thunder has always been a demonstration by one side in the culture war for America’s hearts and minds. And, it is an equally stark fact that the culture war seems destined to never, ever end.

History Is A Pattern Of Timeless Moments

In the distant, pre-Eyewitless News past, Rolling Thunder was first a bombing campaign, then a rock concert tour, then a slogan on a Harley tee shirt. The motorcycle ride of that name was invented by three Vietnam Veterans named Ray Manzo, John Holland and Walt Sides in 1987. The three decided to start an annual ride to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. And, it is probably fair to say their intentions were at least aggressive.

The Memorial, which most people just call The Wall, opened in 1982 and five years later it was still controversial. The majority opinion, clearly, was that nothing connected to Vietnam should ever be memorialized. A large, opposing group argued that The Wall was hardly a monument at all. About 1987, a number of Veterans began to believe that even if The Wall was not much it was still ours.

Some of those veterans had come home and become outlaws. Rolling Thunder first gained national attention in 1988 after Manzo, Holland, Sides and a man named Artie Muller enlisted the help of the Vietnam Veterans (VNV) Motorcycle Club.

That year, and to a lesser extent today, this event had two parts.

Running On Empty

The first and, for most participants, the most important component was “The Run To The Wall.” Near the end of the Cosby years, The Run To The Wall was an almost holy, cross-continental pilgrimage that began at the TA Truck Stop in Ontario, California. Those first years, fifty or so underemployed, allegedly criminal, Vietnam Vets would wind themselves up and charge like berserkers from one ocean to the other.

The Run was such an audacious idea that it picked up riders as it moved east-like the Lord rounding up disciples on the shores of the Galilee. Good citizens were so astounded by this pilgrimage that some applauded the pack. Cops stopped traffic to let the veterans pass. Cops! Bike shops offered free oil changes. Very quickly, The Run To The Wall became a welcome home parade.

The second part of the event was called Rolling Thunder. Riders from the west, south, north and east would assemble in Virginia and ride as one huge pack to The Wall. In 1988, 2,000 Vietnam Vets and their supporters and survivors rode in that pack.

Of Course There Were Arrests

Rolling Thunder in 1988 was a de facto outlaw event so, of course, there were arrests. Most veterans that year were concerned about the men who were still missing fifteen years after the end of the war. So, naturally several biker criminals ran onto the grass behind The Wall, waved POW-MIA flags, were cheered by the assembled crowd and then were dragged away by U.S. Park Police for demonstrating without a permit. After that, other than a couple of joints, everybody behaved.

Eighty-eight was a year when it was still acceptable to stereotype Vietnam Veterans as beasts. The Wall was vandalized that spring. Someone tried to scratch out the names on three of the panels but The Wall is granite, the “protest” was furtive and the monument was roughed up not maimed

No sitting politician dared attend or even acknowledge the event but a former Senator named Charles Mathias did speak and he apologized to the group for the recent vandalization. Mathias called the vandals “utterly without thought.”

Please Excuse Our Messy Blood

In 1988, it was still considered absolutely necessary that Vietnam Veterans apologize for “what they had done.” So when a Vietnam Veteran named Marshall Colt spoke he began his remarks very humbly.

“I would like to thank our nation for gradually accepting Vietnam Veterans and separating the war from the warriors and recognizing that Vietnam Veterans honored a commitment to the country,” Colt said. Then, because America never would, Colt took it upon himself to forgive the mostly rough crowd for its sins. ” I am proud of the honorable intentions of you, my compatriots,” he said.

Colt’s remarks were intended kindly, of course. All the speakers were trying to be nice. A woman named Laura Palmer stood up and said, “Welcome home.”

But, many of the men in the crowd had a different idea of what was going on that day. A biker from Pittsburgh named Robert Wagner called the rally by The Wall, “a show of strength.” Really, it was just a little rally by the unpopular side in the culture war.

Music from an improvised sound system drifted out over the lawn, where it roused an army of tiny insects. The insects made their own show of strength, sought their respect, then retreated to the Reflecting Pool.

Many bikers lingered, searched, sought names lost like leaves in a forest of names, gave up and made their own retreat. It was all mostly over in about ninety minutes. It was not much of a payoff after such a long, hard ride.

But Rolling Thunder did not die. It changed with the times.

Rolling Thunder Incorporated

Eric Hoffer, the self-taught, stevedore philosopher noticed that “Every good idea in America ends up as a corporation, a foundation or a racket.” And, so Rolling Thunder is now incorporated.

Rolling Thunder has become the great thing Artie Muller has done with his life. Muller was a sergeant in the Fourth Infantry Division in the Central Highlands. He has been widely described by friends and enemies as “charismatic.” He soon separated the VNVMC from the run and the parade and after he did Rolling Thunder seemed to become more respectable.

Rolling Thunder became less an outlaw “show of force” and more a chance to “honor the vets.” It grew to 40,000 riders by 1994. Last year 350,000 riders took part.

Rolling Thunder, Incorporated is now a quasi-motorcycle club with 88 chapters in 29 states. The phrases Rolling Thunder and Rolling Thunder Charities are registered trademarks. And, the organization’s web site warns visitors that: “Use of these trademarks or any combination thereafter of said trademarks by any outside entity, is strictly prohibited. Failure to comply with the Trademark laws will result in legal action against any person/s and or business interest using said trademarks.”

Rolling Thunder is Artie Muller’s club. He has sincerely and whole-heartedly advocated for veterans for most of his life. He handed Bush his Rolling Thunder cut last year and it was Artie Muller who Obama decided not to snub on Friday. Muller gets his respect on behalf of the vets.

And Now The Backlash

Yet, as Rolling Thunder has grown gargantuan the other side in the culture war has more aggressively tried to belittle the veterans’ parade. For the last year, the foremost advocate for shoving the vets back into their tiger cages has been Garrison Keillor.

Keillor is, as part of his official job description, America’s most beloved humorist. And, in case no one has ever explained it to you, a humorist is a comedian who does not have to be funny because he is, by acclamation, very, very wise.

Keillor graduated from college in 1966 so he is about the right age to have been in Vietnam. He is not obviously handicapped or homosexual. He is a strapping man who has been married three times so he must have gone and fought. Many less strapping and more sensitive young men were compelled to do so Keillor must have gone as well. And apparently, he found his experiences so personally profound that he has never once spoken of his military service during all of his many years of celebrity.

Keillor does not live in Washington but he was there last Memorial Day. He was in town to “show (his) patriotism by looking at exhibits at the Smithsonian,” and the parade of loud motorcycles got in his way when he tried to cross Constitution Avenue. So he had to wait. And, it made him mad as hell to have to wait. And, he decided he was not going to take it anymore. So, he told the veterans and the friends and survivors and sons and admirers of veterans what he thought of them.

Fat Men With Ponytails Playing Soldier

“A patriotic bike rally is sort of like a patriotic toilet-papering or patriotic graffiti,” Keillor wrote the next day. “Somehow a person associates Memorial Day with long moments of silence when you summon up mental images of men huddled together on LSTs and pilots revving up B-24s and infantrymen crouched behind piles of rubble steeling themselves for the next push,” he explained. “You don’t quite see the connection between that and these fat men with ponytails on Harleys.”

“If anyone cared about the war dead,” Keillor continued, “they could go read David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War or Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944, to May 7, 1945 or any of a hundred other books, and they would get a vision of what it was like to face death for your country, but the bikers riding in formation are more interested in being seen than in learning anything. They are grown men playing soldier, making a great hullaballoo without exposing themselves to danger, other than getting drunk and falling off a bike.”

Nattering nabobs and nit pickers might notice that Keillor was so traumatized by Vietnam that he has completely forgotten that it ever happened or that he was ever there or how Rolling Thunder got started in the first place. All of the left-wing establishment in this country has been similarly traumatized by Vietnam for decades.

Which does not in any way alter the fact that Keillor is speaking for the American ruling class. Some stupid people on the margins of society might think he is a fatuous ass but Garrison Keillor is still America’s most beloved humorist. He does not have to be funny. He makes the big bucks because he is wise. And, what he thinks matters to people who matter. Like the current President of the United States.

So Yesterday

President Obama does know about Vietnam. He read about it in a book. He may or may not be as astounded or offended by veterans as Keillor is astounded and offended. He would never say if he was. He did go out of town this weekend, though.

What is clear as glass is that Obama thinks that Vietnam was so long ago that it does not matter anymore. Vietnam has nothing to teach post-modern America, post-manufacturing America, post-victory America, post-prosperous America, post-fair play America, post-jobs America.

Vietnam is so yesterday. “So yesterday. So yesterday,” to quote the very wise, postmodern, Disney creation Hillary Duff. “Laugh it off. Let it go. So yesterday.”

We have to quote Hillary Duff here not because she is offensive or unpleasant but because she is what America is today. We don’t make cars, or steel or television sets anymore. We don’t win wars. We make Hillary Duffs.

And, the President is not about to argue with the way things are. He sees that Rolling Thunder is so yesterday. And, most of the country probably agrees with him.

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10 Responses to “Rolling Thunder 2009”

  1. Bear Says:

    I’m glad the President made an appearance; for whatever the reason, it’s at least some acknowledgement, if not from the man at least from the office. I’ve never riden the Rolling Thunder ride to Wall. Not because I don’t support it, but because I don’t do well in crowds and it seem to me that it would take the “personal” experience out of visiting that hallowed ground. I hope some in postitions of power can look at that biomass assembled in DC and understand that for all of us who’ve answered the call our Iraqs, Afganistans, Vietnams, Koreas, European and Pacific theaters are never “yesterdays”. They’re not always “current moments”, but they’re not far behind. As someone a couple decades beyond them I’d like to say the “Duff” generation doesn’t get it, but then I’d have to dismiss the tens of thousands of the current generation of men and women who have the same dreams as us; many of whom are on their second, third or even fourth tours in combat. Those important men and women looking down on the crowd from the lofty hieghts of power should keep in mind that “our club” grows every day. We who have lived with our yesterdays and the apathy of our leaders should remember them also. Today though I don’t want to be pissed off. I don’t want to get fired up. I want to enjoy the peace my life gives me and I want that for you too. I hope all of you are sitting on your every widening fifth point of contact with a cold beverage in your hand; the smell of the BBQ wafting through the air, the squeals of laughter of your children or grandchildren running from the garden hose lifting your hearts. That’s what I want for us, at least for a day. I want to enjoy today for myself and I want to quietly, without drawing attention, personally remember those who will never age; who live in yesterday and never had a tomorrow. I don’t use this term freely as some do, I don’t consider it all encompassing as some do, but right now I want to say “Brother” welcome home. One last thing… Fuck you Garrison Keillor!

  2. gigelo Says:

    is he walking the walk or talking the talk?
    what’s important putting on a cut and a smirk (like a hundred other yuppies, or doing something for them. unlike somebody that turned down a raise for the troops cause it was too much?
    — President Obama pledged Monday to make good on his promise to transform the Department of Veterans Affairs and said he would “dramatically improve” mental health aid.
    President Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, seen here last month, vow to increase aid.

    President Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, seen here last month, vow to increase aid.

    Flanked by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the president said his budget calls for a $25 billion increase in funding for the VA over the next five years — a commitment that will be tested by the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “With this budget, we don’t just fully fund our Veterans Affairs health care program, we expand it to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013,” he said.

    He promised that the VA would “dramatically improve services” related to mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and he said homeless veterans would be targeted for support.

    “Those heroes have a home,” Obama said. “It’s the country they served, the United States of America, and until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets, our work remains unfinished.”

    i’m tired of politicions that don’t actually do anything.
    they need to either put up, or shut up.

  3. Evo-Woman Says:

    I hope Obama didn’t strain anything getting over there to “make an appearance”. Say what you want about Bush, but he loves our Veterans and ALWAYS had time for them and for Rolling Thunder. This event is the biggest show of respect and support to all the Veterans who gave their lives for our freedom. Look around the monuments in DC and you will see the price of freedom. Without the sacrifices of these men and women, Obama might not be where he is today and we may not have been able to show our support in this ride for the last 22 years.

    This is my 5th Rolling Thunder and I read the article by Keillor – he is an idiot. He needs to come to the Candle Light Vigil on Friday night preceding the ride. He needs to look in the faces of the many Veterans and the Gold Star Mothers to see the pain.

    I wore my POW bracelet I got in 1967 for 25 years before I found out what happened to him. He was in camp 7 years! He was released and came home. Finding him and returning the bracelet to him was amazing it gave me some closure. This is not the case for many – Bring our people home! Nothing can fix the wrongs of Vietnam, but to those who served I say “Welcome Home” – to those who cannot speak for themselves I say “You are not Forgotten”.

    This weekend and the ride is about Freedom – our Freedom. It is given to us by men and women we have never met. Welcome Home a Veteran – there is no way to go to The Wall and not feel the price of freedom. I moved here from the West Coast, there are no words to describe The Wall, Arlington National Cemetery and the other monuments.

    The vast majority who attend Rolling Thunder are either Veterans or people who’s lives have been touched by Veterans. There are people who attend who do not understand nor do they care about anything except the polish on their “new” scooters. The Vietnam Veterans did not deserve what they got. To those who do not understand – shut up! To those who see this as “so yesterday” – like it or not you owe your freedom to a Veteran.

  4. Winning Hearts and Minds Says:

    “This is an unbelievable, great, wonderful start to our weekend. We are excited, and elated,” said Rolling Thunder spokeswoman Nancy Regg.

    “He just wanted to thank us for everything that we do to bring awareness to the POW/MIA issue and to veterans,” said Rolling Thunder national
    president Gary Scheffmeyer.

    The group also relayed its appreciation for the work that the president is doing to improve Veteran’s Affairs, and for the first lady’s commitment to helping military families.

    “They’re really trying to help the veterans of this country who deserve every bit of help that they get,” Scheffmeyer said.

    Asked about how the president is doing so far as commander in chief, the Rolling Thunder national executive director, Sgt. Artie Muller, smiled.

    “So far, I got no complaints, we’ll see, ” Muller said.

    Wow. First Notre Dame, now Rolling Thunder.

  5. curious Says:

    Happy Memorial Day to all and may God bless everyone.

    I think Mr Obama, like any other presidents before him, have advisors that try to tell him what to do and what not,, so what I figure is that even tho he may have been advised against going down to speak to the crowd, he decided to do it anyway.
    So far he doesnt remind me of the kind of man who would think lightly of past or present veterans or thier services to our country.
    You just have to remember that anything a president does involves secret service and tons of planning, and anything impromtu tends to piss those people off. In the end of it all , I dont think anyone could keep Mr Obama from doing what he feels is right, which he did.
    Things will get better.
    We have to believe and keep the faith best we can.

  6. Evo-Woman Says:


    Sometimes actions speak louder than words…… I have faith in the 1st amendment and so far our 2nd amendment rights are hanging on a shoe string. If his plans keep going we will not have the 2nd amendment. He has already passed through – under the radar – bills requiring ammo to be registered and ALL firearms. He does not want anyone working for him who has weapons. More freedoms lost even though our military is fighting to keep them.

    This event is scheduled for EVERY Memorial Day. So there is nothing impromptu about it. I am quite sure he did what he HAD to do and not what he wanted to do in making an appearance. He did not speak to the crowd – he met with the founders and organizers of the event on Friday. Only after he tried to pawn it off to other staff members. He also wants to take away their medical benefits and make them pay – so where is the concern in that?

  7. pervert Says:

    I feel strongly about honoring those who served and those who gave the ulimate sacrifice.
    I am from the Vietnam era and have lost several “Brothers” as a result of the conflict.
    We now are part of the ObamaNation that was once known as the “Home of the free and the land of the brave”. We must accept the loss of our personal freedoms, financial security and honor for some in the name of the good for all policy. Socialism is not what I fought for but it is what am getting. I still have my will, my bike and my weapon. At least they, the socialist party in control, can show respect for those who gave, but I guess that is asking a lot as they never did before.


    Honor and respect those who served as well as their families. Tell them thanks while you can.

  8. figero Says:

    what is the source for your information?
    According to the socailst party website, not only are they not in control, but they don’t have anybody in office at all.

    2008 Candidates

    * For President and Vice President of the United States: Brian Moore of Florida and Stewart Alexander of California — 6,555 votes counted as of 22 January 2009.
    * Connecticut
    o Todd Vachon for US Congress (2nd District) — write-in candidacy (15 votes counted)
    * Florida
    o Marc Luzietti for US Congress (20th District) — write-in candidacy (9 votes counted)
    * Michigan
    o Matt Erard for State Representative (53rd District) — 2,200 votes, 4.6%
    o Dwain Reynolds for State Board of Education — 94,663 votes, 2.2%
    o Jean Treacy for US Congress (1st District) — 2,669 votes, 0.8%
    * New Jersey
    o Peter Moody for Madison Borough Council — write-in candidacy (votes not counted)
    * Rhode Island
    o Jon Osborne for State Senate (34th District) — 2,494 votes, 21.6%
    * Vermont
    o Aaron Diamondstone for State Senate — 2,464 votes, 0.8%
    o Peter Diamondstone for Governnor — 1,710 votes, 0.5%
    o Jerry Levy for Auditor of Accounts — 10,788 votes, 3.7%
    o Jane Newton for US Congress — 5,307 votes, 1.7%
    o Murray Ngoima for Treasurer — 6,423 votes, 2.1%

  9. gigelo Says:

    and what’s bush really done for the troops?
    besides smirk, put on a vest and pretend to be a biker?

    Bush Administration underfunded veterans’ health care by $2 billion. The Bush Administration’s 2004 budget underfunded veterans’ health care by nearly $2 billion. (“Vets Health Low on Bush’s Priority List,” The Hill, September 17, 2003; “Support for Troops Questioned,” Washington Post, June 17, 2003; U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, September 2002)

    Bush Administration budget cuts force more than 200,000 veterans to wait for health care. Over 200,000 United States veterans have to wait more than six months for a medical visit because of health care shortages. (“VA Health Care Funding Alert,” Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States Press Release, January 31, 2003)

    Bush Administration cuts $1.5 billion from military family housing. The Bush Administration cut $1.5 billion for military family housing, despite Department of Defense statistics showing that in 83,000 barracks and 128,860 family housing units across the country are below standard. (“Nothing But Lip Service,” Army Times, June 30, 2003; “House Appropriations Committee Approves $59.2 Million for Ft. Hood,” U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards Press Release, June 17, 2003)

    Bush Republicans support millionaires instead of military veterans. Bush allies in Congress stopped efforts to scale back the tax cut for the nation’s millionaires by just five percent – a loss of just $4,780 for the year – in order to restore this funding for military family housing. (“The Tax Debate Nobody Hears About,” Washington Post, June 17, 2003)

    Bookmark and Share
    May 16, 2007: Bush Administration Opposes Military Pay, Benefits Increases
    Edit event

    The Bush administration flatly opposes an additional 0.5% pay raise for military personnel, an addition to Bush’s proposed 3% pay raise, saying that troops don’t need bigger pay raises. The House Armed Services Committee wants a 3.5% pay raise for 2008, and increases in 2009 and 2010 that are also 0.5% higher than private-sector pay raises. The raises are intended to reduce the gap between military and civilian pay that currently stands at 3.9%. Bush administration budget officials also oppose these raises. A policy statement reads, “When combined with the overall military benefit package, the president’s proposal provides a good quality of life for service members and their families. While we agree military pay must be kept competitive, the 3 percent raise, equal to the increase in the Employment Cost Index, will do that.” The Bush administration also opposes a provision that would provide a death gratuity for federal civilian employees who die in support of military operations, price controls for prescription drugs for soldiers and their families, an extra $40 per month for widows of slain soldiers, and new benefits for disabled retirees and the survivors of military retirees. [Army Times, 5/17/2007; Speaker of the House, 5/17/2007] On May 18, Representative Patrick Murphy (D-PA), an Iraq war veteran, denounces Bush’s opposition to the pay and benefit raises, saying, “But the fact is, is that those privates who are making $17,000 a year, those privates that are leaving their wives, their kids at home, many of whom have to survive on food stamps, those privates who saw what we did in the defense bill, who said that’s great, 3.5% pay increase, not even $1,000 more a year, a couple hundred dollars a year, the President of the United States said, ‘Private, thank you for your service to your country, but that’s too much of a pay increase.’” [Speaker of the House, 7/20/2007]

    Entity Tags: George W. Bush, House Armed Services Committee, Patrick Murphy

    Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation
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    July 20, 2007: Bush Misleads Troops about Support for Pay Raises
    Edit event

    President Bush tells a gathering of US soldiers and their families, “It is time to rise above partisanship, stand behind our troops in the field, and give them everything they need to succeed. In February I submitted to Congress a Defense Department spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year that will provide funds to upgrade our equipment for our troops in Iraq and provides a pay raise for our military—a comprehensive spending request—that Congress has failed to act on.” [Speaker of the House, 7/20/2007] But on May 16, 2007, Bush came out strongly against an addition to his proposed pay raise (see May 16, 2007), opposing a proposed 0.5% pay raise in addition to the 3% raise he proposed for the February 2008 budget as “unnecessary.” [Army Times, 5/17/2007]


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