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The Wild Bunch : Lawyers do it. And bankers do it. Even senators. Do what? Hog the streets of D.C. on their Harleys.

June 26, 1995|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The Harley-Davidson rider was resplendent in black leather vest and pants laced up the side, a tomato-red shirt, black neckerchief with a silver and turquoise clasp, a three-tier necklace of black and silver beads, and a bandanna crowning his braided gray mane.

"I'm in my real life now," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado.

It's been 30 years since author Hunter S. Thompson immortalized the Hell's Angels as "filthy Huns breeding like rats in California and spreading East."

They finally made it to Washington--or at least their motorcycles did.

The capital of pork, not surprisingly, turns out to be full of "hogs"--as in Harley owner groups.

The big bad bikes with the anti-Establishment image have caught on in this wonkish city, bringing out the wild one inside tax lawyers, lady lobbyists, World Bankers and Beltway bandits, not to mention elected officials.

According to Campbell, who recently switched from Democrat to Republican, hog fever crosses party lines.

"[Sen.] Larry Pressler [R-S.D.] just bought one. [Democratic Rep.] Gary Condit of California is a biker. [Reps. Randy] Duke Cunningham [R-Calif.] and Sonny Bono [R-Calif.] used to ride. Sonny's interested in riding again but he's been real busy.

"We get a couple more guys to join, we'll start our own club--the Hill's Angels."

Almost incognito in his biker's version of black tie, Campbell attended a barbecue for Rolling Thunder, the rally that brings thousands of bikers to Washington every Memorial Day weekend to honor Vietnam veterans. Instead of the budget, he happily debated the relative merits of chain drives, belts and cams.

No longer associated mostly with unwashed outlaws, Harleys have become chic, the vehicle of choice for leather-loving celebrities and desk-bound Walter Mittys.

"Malcolm Forbes legitimized it for corporate folks," Campbell said, referring to the free-spirited late publisher. "A lot of people in high-stress jobs have found it a kind of therapy."

*

Larry Hagman and Jay Leno are hogs. So is Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan. And Mary Fisher, the HIV-positive mom who electrified the 1992 Republican convention and now lives in Maryland, is a hog, along with King Hussein of Jordan, who recently bought two Harleys from a Maryland dealership.

In Washington as elsewhere, the bug has bitten less well-known rich urban bikers--called "rubs" or "rubbies"--fueled by middle-aged angst and the same nostalgia for risk and freedom that took so many people back to Woodstock.

"I haven't changed wives or jobs, I just got a Harley," said Bernie Long, 54, a partner in the law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson.

Long, a self-described "tax dweeb," said he used to ride a bicycle to work from his home in Chevy Chase, Md., until it caused neck and shoulder problems. In 1993, he bought a Sportster, the smallest Harley model, and traded up to a 1340 cc FXDS Convertible Cruiser last year.

An accident in February--a motorist ran a stop sign--left Long with a broken wrist and $3,000 worth of damage to his bike, but did nothing to dissuade him from riding.

"It gave me the opportunity to buy every piece of chrome Harley makes," Long said.

"The noise, the exhaust, the road, the wind in your hair. Put it all together. It's a hell of a nice picture."

More than 100,000 motorcycles are registered in the Washington area and about a fifth are probably Harleys. The 92-year-old company nearly went belly-up in the '80s, but now holds more than a 20% share of the American motorcycle market.

"It's exploded in the last 4 1/2 years," said Joe Lozano, a salesman at the largest of nine dealerships in the area. "Customers wait from four months to a year and a half for a motorcycle."

*

Campbell has been riding Harleys since his youth. He keeps a big ElectraGlide touring bike at home, but rides a custom Softail in Washington that, in honor of his Native American heritage, is painted red with a black eagle feather motif.

"I park it among the black limousines--that raises a few eyebrows. I wear stay-pressed Levi's to work. At the end of the day, I take off my sports coat and put on my leathers and I'm gone."

When he's not back in his district or working late in the Senate, Campbell sometimes rides with a motorcycle club called the Boneheads. The group originated about three years ago but coalesced in the last year.

With about 15 members and an equal number of hangers-on, the Boneheads go to bike weeks in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.; cruise on weekends, and party at local bars every Wednesday night.

Each member has a club moniker: Big Dog, Bulldog, Mad Dog, Hound Dog, She-Dog, Little Dog, Spike and Ace. Last month, they started a facetious newsletter and a 24-hour hot line that warns callers: "All Bonehead activities include adult language, partial nudity and alcoholic beverages. So if you are under 21 or an uptight person, stay home."

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