WASHINGTON - Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycling group roared into town yesterday for a visit at the White House, where they presented President Bush with his own cowhide vest 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 Mr. 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," Mr. Bush told the group.
For 21 years, 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.
Riders began yesterday at the Pentagon, crossed the Memorial Bridge, and gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Rolling Thunder members, along with several of the President's aides, also revved their engines up to the White House's driveway.
Mr. Bush, who was returning in his helicopter from Camp David, greeted members near the South Lawn.
He said "it was a magnificent sight" to see the thousands of motorcyclists pay tribute to veterans in the nation's capital.
Mr. Bush said he saw Mr. Muller's "brothers and sisters cranking up their machines and driving through the nation's capital, many of them have got the flag on the back. And I am just so honored to welcome you 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 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.
The leaders of Rolling Thunder, a group with about 90 chapters across the country, met briefly with the President in the Oval Office to discuss concerns relating to veterans' care.
Mr. Muller said he told Mr. 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 in an earlier interview.
After the meeting, Mr. Muller said: "He said he is going to really look into it. He said that really has to change. I know he can't do everything we've always asked, but I know he's come close."
Today Mr. Bush planned to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.