If you were to set out on a road trip this afternoon, the view would vary widely based on where your drive took you. But there’s one melancholy image you would notice wherever you went: In front of schools and gas stations, office parks and private homes, all across the country, the American flag is flying at half-staff.
Then again, perhaps you wouldn’t notice it. Lately, it’s really not such an unusual sight. Tuesday marks the 30th day this year that President Obama has ordered the flag lowered, according to the unofficial count maintained by halfstaff.org; that’s about 15 percent of the year so far. The current five-day order, issued the day after the attacks on law-enforcement officers in Dallas last week, was the 67th of Obama’s presidency. USA Today reported recently that that’s a record: Obama has ordered flags at half-staff more than any other president in United States history; more than George W. Bush’s 58 orders and Bill Clinton’s 50. All told, the flag has been perched halfway down the pole for 162 days of Obama’s administration.
The tradition of flying the flag at half-staff in times of mourning goes back centuries. It started as a maritime custom (hence the related phrase half-mast), and eventually spread to land. Today, custom and the law provide for the American flag to be lowered on a few set days a year, when prominent government officials die, and after major national tragedies. It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of obscure vexillological etiquette (especially when there are different rules for state, federal, and private properties), but the big picture is that lowering the flag halfway signifies a period of communal mourning.
According to the official U.S. Flag Code, a set of statutes on respectful handling of the flag, only presidents and state governors have the formal right to order flags lowered. If you think President Obama is a little too quick to issue half-staff proclamations, check out the governors. According to a recent count by the Associated Press, flags were flying at half-staff somewhere in the United States on 328 days last year. At this rate, it may soon become more efficient for officials to tell flag-owners when they would raise their flags, not when they should lower them.
Does President Obama’s generosity with half-staff orders dilute the power of the gesture? It’s hard to find a wrong note among the orders he has issued. Along with the current proclamation for Dallas, he has issued half-staff proclamations after the Boston Marathon bombing, the embassy bombing in Benghazi, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and mass shootings in Newton, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; Roseburg, Oregon; San Bernardino, California; and Orlando, Florida, among others. The deaths of Nancy Reagan, Antonin Scalia, Neil Armstrong, and Nelson Mandela have each prompted proclamations under Obama’s watch, along with the anniversaries of the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. As is customary, it is always lowered on Sept. 11, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), and until noon on Memorial Day. If you can look at the list above and figure out which occasions didn’t deserve the gesture, you’re made of impressively stern stuff.
Considering his record-breaking numbers, it’s baffling that Obama is continually the subject of accusations that he doesn’t lower the American flag enough. One persistent online rumor accuses him of ordering the flag lowered for Whitney Houston’s death (the outraged memes typically emphasize that she was a drug user), but not for whatever recent tragedy is deemed more worthy. Last summer, patriotic dimwits pointed out the supposed contrast between his response to the death of Houston and the killing of five soldiers by a gunman in Chattanooga, Tennessee:
Flags at half mast for Whitney Houston? 4 Marines and 1 Navy serviceman assassinated by a terrorist on our soil.....nothing?— Curt Schilling (@gehrig38) July 20, 2015
Obama eventually did order the flag lowered for the victims of the Chattanooga shooting, though it came a few days later than he typically acts. But the Whitney Houston rumor was false. It was actually New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who ordered flags lowered in his state in honor of the Jersey native’s death in 2012. Christie issued the same honor for Yogi Berra, James Gandolfini, and E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Christie may be an unusually sentimental guy, but he’s in good company among his fellow governors. In January, the governor of Rhode Island bowed to public pressure to lower flags for convicted felon (and former Providence mayor) Buddy Cianci. Around the same time, then-presidential candidate John Kasich ordered Ohio flags lowered to honor Jethro, a police dog shot during a robbery investigation; last fall, he lowered flags for a Toledo police dog named Falko. When I called the American Legion to speak to an expert in flag etiquette, he scrupulously avoided passing any judgment on presidential and gubernatorial decision-making, but he couldn’t avoid sniffing at the idea of flying a flag at half-staff over a fallen pooch: “To place the U.S. flag at half-staff for the loss of a four-legged animal,” he said, sounding pained, “that’s a stretch.”
There’s no penalty for other officials who issue their own orders, or who fail to follow official guidelines. And these orders happen often, usually because most people simply don’t know the rules, or are following local guidelines that contradict the flag code. Mayors seem to be frequent offenders, lowering local flags for figures including Michael Jackson and Tim Russert, for example. Last summer, as controversy roiled over Obama’s hesitation after the attacks in Chattanooga, Donald Trump issued a press release chastising the president and then ordered flags on his various properties lowered.
“It can be a very powerful symbol, but it can also be overdone to the point that it loses its significance,” John Hartvigsen, president of the North American Vexillological Association, told the AP recently. “You can’t spell everything out about this in rules and regulations, because it has so much to do with emotion.” The flag code specifies that the flag should fly at half-staff for 30 days after the death of a president or former president; 10 days for a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice, or speaker of the House; and a day for a member of Congress. But the code offers little specific guidance when it comes to responding in the moment to larger and more amorphous tragedies—or to events that touch the public but in retrospect don’t merit the honor. Sorry, Jethro and Falko.
Flying the flag at half-staff is a very small gesture, and quibbling over it may seem petty at a time when a new national crisis boils over every week and when bipartisan sentiment is in short supply. But its smallness is part of its beauty. To preserve its power, maybe we should use it just a little less often.