WASHINGTON – Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycling group roared into town for a White House visit Sunday, where they presented President Bush with his own cowhide vest jacket and pushed for increased veterans benefits.
"Mr. President, we'd like to make you an honorary member of Rolling Thunder," said Artie Muller, the group's executive director, to a delighted Bush, who shed his suit jacket to don the vest and pose for pictures.
"You've done a lot for the country, and the troops appreciate you, and the veterans appreciate you, and your president appreciates you," Bush told the group.
For 21 years now, Rolling Thunder has led a "Ride for Freedom" along the National Mall during Memorial Day weekend, a full-throttle demonstration in support of soldiers held captive or missing in action. On Sunday, riders began at the Pentagon, rode across the Memorial Bridge and gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Rolling Thunder members also revved their engines up to the White House's driveway along with several of the president's aides. Bush, who was returning in his chopper back from Camp David, greeted members near the South Lawn. Bush said "it was a magnificent sight" to see the thousands of motorcyclists come to the nation's capital to pay tribute to veterans.
Bush said he saw the group's "brothers and sisters cranking up their machines, riding them to the nation's capital, many of them have got the flag on the back, and I'm just so honored to welcome them back." The group has visited the White House more than half a dozen times in previous years.
The president also greeted some of his aides who joined in for the motorcycle ride, including Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and his top economic adviser, Edward Lazear, who showed up in a black bandanna and Harley-Davidson vest.
The leaders of Rolling Thunder, a group with about 90 chapters throughout the country, met briefly with the president in the Oval Office afterward to discuss concerns relating to veterans' care.
Muller on Saturday said he planned to tell Bush that many veterans have been wrongly classified as having a personality disorder, when they should be getting higher compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We feel that this is just saving the government some money because there are over 28,000 troops that they're not paying disability benefits for," he said.
On Monday, Bush planned to make remarks and place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Memorial Day.