Sarah Palin brought some chaos and political buzz to the 24th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride Sunday, riding into the Pentagon parking lot around noon on the back of a Harley and quickly drawing a crowd of reporters, fans and gawkers.
Palin’s decision to make the ride a kickoff stop in a week-long tour of historic sites of the Northeast caused consternation among some attendees while renewing speculation about her political future.
Palin and her staff have declined to offer any details about the coming stops on the tour. Instead, they have been putting updates online after each event. She’s given no hint of her purpose in staging these events beyond “appreciat[ing] the significance of our nation’s historic sites, patriotic events and diverse culture.”
Many Rolling Thunder attendees said they were happy to have Palin there as long as she didn’t distract focus from the veterans’ cause. The ride is held every year to raise awareness for prisoners of war and troops missing in action.
“Don’t come here and try to make a political point out of it,” said Joe Clark of Pennsylvania. “If she’s just here backing the cause of the entire run, that’s fine. If she’s just trying to get votes, she should just stay out of it.”
When Palin arrived, Rolling Thunder security staffers repeatedly yelled at members of the news media to get away from the bikes, saying that equipment worth upward of $20,000 could be damaged in the scrum.
One staffer grabbed a photographer by his throat and shoved him backward. Onlookers expressed concern for Palin’s safety. “The girl needs a bodyguard,” one woman said. But Palin stood calmly in the middle of it all, signing books and leather jackets. “I don’t know yet,” she told a crowd member who asked whether she was running for president. The former governor of Alaska calmly answered questions from the news media.
“I’m very not appreciative of the way she came in here,” Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder’s national legislative director, said of Palin’s arrival, citing the chaos around the bikes. “If she wanted to come on the ride, she should have come in the back.”
The 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate came in the front of the Pentagon’s north parking lot, where event staff and reporters were assembled. Motorcyclists began lining up there early in the morning, and by the time Palin arrived the lot was full.
She was accompanied by her husband and daughters — Todd rode with Piper behind him, and Bristol sat behind another biker.
After the ride, Palin kept a low profile. She did not speak at the rally that followed the ride; she ate lunch with wounded veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a tent blocked off from the crowd. The Palins left the Mall in the early afternoon, destination unknown.
Some participants speculated that Palin was using the event to shape her political profile. “I think she’s probably just using it for the publicity. Whether she’ll run or not I don’t know,” said Iris Amoriello of New Jersey. “She’s probably out here to get veterans’ support for herself or whatever candidate [she endorses].”
Many were happy to have Palin participate but did not want her to say or do anything that would bring a political tinge to the event.
“More power to her,” said Jules Tepper of Maryland. “She hasn’t declared, so I really don’t know the real reason for her to be here other than to get her face out. Maybe she wants to attach her personal brand to Rolling Thunder. Rolling Thunder wouldn’t say yes, and Rolling Thunder wouldn’t say no. We welcome all people.”