Breaking a tradition that lasted about a decade, organizers of Rolling Thunder were locked out of the White House this year.
Rolling Thunder is an annual motorcycle parade from Arlington, Virginia to the National Mall in Washington. Rolling Thunder began in 1987 as an adjunct to a quasi-outlaw, transcontinental motorcycle ride called the Run To The Wall. It has evolved to become both a non-profit corporation and the largest motorcycle gathering on the planet. Last week, Washington police estimated that 900,000 motorcycle riders and passengers would participate in the 2010 version of Rolling Thunder.
Rolling Thunder, Incorporated which organizes the annual event states that the “major function of Rolling Thunder is to publicize POW-MIA issues: To educate the public that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war or missing in action.”
Rolling Thunder has become the life’s work of a Vietnam veteran named Artie Mueller who ran to the Wall in 1987.
Rolling Thunder became a major event because for a couple of decades most of the American power structure was racked with guilt over Vietnam. American culture has never quite digested the bitter fact that some young men had to go fight and some other young men did not. Even now it is still hard for some people to believe that feigning illness or homosexuality to avoid being shot at was a manifestation of sixties idealism – like Woodstock or wearing flowers in your hair.
For at least seven years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam veterans were generally despised and belittled. Starting about 1982 when the first Rambo movie was released, at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, broad public portrayals of Vietnam veterans were revised and became romanticized.
Both the disapproving and admiring portrayals of those veterans were generally manufactured by men who had used dishonorable methods to avoid military service. Sylvester Stallone for example, avoided Vietnam by fleeing to Switzerland. And as a result America has been rewarded with the richness of the absolutely indispensible Rocky Balboa: Rocky VI.
But, John Arthur “Jack” Rambo, whose name Stallone turned into a kind of a joke, may have also deserved to live – arguably almost as much as the movie star. Jack Rambo was from Libby, Montana and he had a wife, a child and a Master’s Degree in geology. He wore glasses and for the last fourteen months of his life he wore a shaved head. He was drafted and he reported for induction because his personal sense of ethics allowed him no other choice. He died very unglamorously. He burned to death in November 1969 after calling in a napalm strike on his own position. And, largely because of the cartoon character that cemented Stallone’s fortune and fame, Jack Rambo’s name on the Wall has been repeatedly defaced.
Stallone may or may not know any of this. He may actually have intended his portrayal to be an homage to veterans of the Vietnam War and he may have succeeded. After the first Rolling Thunder many tributes began to appear. The formal deference that prosperous, successful and often powerful draft dodgers began to offer Vietnam Veterans was obviously intended to repay a debt. And, Rolling Thunder grew as that national regret and guilt became more and more institutionalized.
No President esteemed Rolling Thunder more than George W. Bush who spent most of the Vietnam War drunk. Although, in fairness to the former President, it should also be remembered that he devoted several tedious months to defending Mississippi in case it should be invaded by Louisiana.
Two years ago Artie Mueller rode onto the White House grounds and Bush was waiting for him in the driveway. Bush grinned and confused Rolling Thunder with the Patriot Guard Riders. The President put on a cut. Mueller proclaimed him to be an official member of Rolling Thunder. And the two of them strolled off to the Oval Office – as lovers in movies stroll off toward the sunset just before the appearance of the final words “The End.”
Now Bush is gone. He is busy “writing” his book. And, President Obama is too young to have dodged Vietnam. So he has nothing to feel guilty about. So he does not.
Last year, Obama tried and failed to officially snub Mueller and he seemed to have been genuinely surprised by the backlash. First the Administration refused Rolling Thunder a slot on its calendar. Then the week before Memorial Day, the White House reluctantly agreed to accept a letter from representatives of Rolling Thunder on the condition that the President would not have to attend the letter accepting ceremony. Then after more grumbling, and because our President is unusually warm and cordial when compared to other invaders from the planet Vulcan, Obama changed his mind yet again and agreed to what was officially described as a “brief but cordial” handshake with members of the group.
“The President stopped by while members of Rolling Thunder were meeting with administration officials about veterans’ issues,” a spokesman explained. “He was very happy to meet with them.” Or maybe things were actually as they appeared to be and Obama just got stuck with meeting them.
Forewarned Is Forearmed
This year Obama was better prepared. This year he knew that gigantic pack of motorcycles and all that terrible noise was coming so he left town early. He spent the long weekend in Chicago. Consequently, it was physically impossible for him to shake hands with anybody from Rolling Thunder. And, since the President was not in town it logically followed that there was no reason to even pay lip service to Rolling Thunder by inviting any of the participants to meet “with administration officials.” So no administration officials did.
Vice-president Joe Biden was actually in town but he also declined to meet with anybody from Rolling Thunder. If Biden ever felt guilt he has now managed to evolve into someone who no longer does. The Vice-President likes to describe himself as “a working class kid from Scranton” and that is probably who he sees when he shaves.
But unlike many other working-class kids from Scranton, Biden did not serve in Vietnam because he was awarded five student draft deferments between 1963 and 1968. And in 1968, when Nixon ended deferments for graduate students, Biden was not drafted because he was reclassified as unfit for military service: Because he was able to produce a letter from a doctor who claimed to know that Biden had once suffered an asthma attack as a teenager.
Most importantly, that was all very long ago. Who can remember the details? And, if there is anything that history teaches us it is that history is no match for television. Which explains the essence of the modern Memorial Day. Which is, if you can just get drunk enough at the barbeque you can forget what holiday it is.
Memorial Day Sermon
Which helps to explain the official contempt for Rolling Thunder. It is an inherently loud and rude event. It has always been loud and rude. It has always invited blatantly criminal acts, like simultaneously drinking a beer and riding a motorcycle or running around on a lawn with a sign without a permit. So Rolling Thunder, a non-official event, has now become a bayonet that threatens to open a can of worms.
The essence of America is that the people may be governed only with their consent. The way Americans have always responded to bad laws is to disobey, subvert or ignore them. It is both the outlaw way and the way of the draft dodger. It is the American way. It is what all the names on all the walls and all the graves represent: The right of the American people to disobey, subvert and ignore bad law.
And now, in the fortieth year of the “War On Drugs,” it is the fatal flaw in the American police state. We can be America or we can be a police state but we cannot be both. Bush never appeared smart enough to grasp this irony. Obama may be smarter but he refuses to care.
So now, suddenly, the actions and events that spawned Rolling Thunder have all become very long ago. And the guilt that fertilized the event’s growth is also now very long ago. And those details were never very clear because they were never allowed to be clear. They were always hidden by gun smoke, which has always been the fog of war. And now they are being white-washed.