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.
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.