Shaffer: Who knows for whom the flag lowers?

September 9, 2012 

The North Carolina flagon the Capitol building flies at half-staff Friday Sept. 7, 2012 for former Rep. Charlie Rose.

JOSH SHAFFER — jshaffer@newsobserver.com

  • More information The flag may be flown at half-staff by presidential proclamation or by governor’s order. Only the president or governors of states can lower the U.S. flag. The governor has authority over all flags at North Carolina facilities. Here is a list of official half-staff days for North Carolina: Peace Officers Memorial Day, Memorial Day, Korean War Veterans Day, Patriot Day, Pearl Harbor Day.

— So far this year, Gov. Bev Perdue has ordered North Carolina flags lowered to half-staff 12 times, just one shy of the total for 2011, more than twice the number of officially somber occasions observed in 2010.

Some of the nation’s worst atrocities rank among those flag-lowering events: the mass shootings in Wisconsin, the movie-theater massacre in Colorado, a madman’s gunfire in Tucson.

Flags in Raleigh lingered at half-mast in memory of some of the more grave chapters in American history: Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, Sept. 11.

But I’m going to go out on a very shaky limb here and say that the up-down flag ceremony is getting too frequent, or at least too confusing.

No disrespect to their fine careers, but I’m guessing most people who cross the Capitol lawn haven’t heard of William Wainwright, Bob Shaw or Jim Forrester – a few state politicians given recent half-staff remembrance.

On Friday, flags waved low in tribute to Charlie Rose, longtime congressman from Fayetteville, a Democrat nicknamed “Mr. Tobacco,” a man who tirelessly fought cigarette taxes.

I asked 10 passing people if they could explain the reason for the short-staff flags. Two of them could. That’s 20 percent. Some of the other responses:

“Somebody died or something?”

“Maybe the political conventions?”

One of the clueless passers-by worked for the state Department of Administration – the very agency that makes the announcements.

But before you fire off the hate mail, let me say that I’m 100 percent in favor of any kind of tribute toward any kind of dead person, especially those in public service. Everybody, in my opinion, ought to have a parade when the reaper knocks – preferably one with trombones and tubas.

But if that ceremony is going to mean anything, it has got to be consistent, and flag-lowering in North Carolina is anything but.

You don’t always get all the flags dipped when you die. Rose only got the Capitol and the state buildings in Cumberland County. Cary Allred, longtime Republican legislator from Burlington, only got Alamance County offices. Total Raleigh shutout.

Meanwhile, look at Larry Brown, Republican House member from Kernersville. His death in August commanded lowered flags from Murphy to Manteo.

Two years ago, Brown brought national condemnation for referring to gays as “queers” and “fruit loops,” and for moving to cut off AIDS funding because of the victims’ “perverted lifestyles.” I’m going to go out on a not-so-shaky limb and say that kind of talk doesn’t merit you the same state-flag treatment as Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon?

Another thing: Ceremony doesn’t count if nobody understands it.

If we’re going to lower the flag, we need some kind of a sign letting people know who is being shown reverence and why. I’m glad the governor recognized Warren “Sneak” Lewis, the Nash County sheriff’s investigator killed on duty in Kinston. But I had no idea the flag outside my window was lowered in his name until I looked up a year-old press release.

Charlie Rose served 12 terms in Congress and scored 2 out of 10 for name recognition at the center of North Carolina government. One of those two shrugged her shoulders when I pointed to the flag and asked, but to my great delight, she kept thinking about it as she walked away.

After about 50 feet, she turned and announced for the whole Capitol lawn to hear, “Oh, I know why! Charlie Rose passed away. The senator. That’s probably why.”

Somewhere in the clouds, even with his office incorrectly stated, Rose sent a smile of thanks wafting down past the lowered flag.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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