Dear Ace: On a recent trip to Richmond, I noticed that all the state buildings were flying the Commonwealth flag at half-staff while the U.S. flag was at full-staff. Isn’t this a deviation from flag-display protocol?—Fannie Flagg
Fannie: No offense, but prior to receiving this question, when Ace heard phrases like “deviation from flag-display protocol,” his eyes tended to glaze over and his brain entered shut-down mode. It’s just one of those things. Like Kant’s “categorical imperative,” or “the effects of erosion on trout hatchery populations.” It turns out, though, that there’s this whole formal, complex flag code that applies to the U.S. and, well, it’s pretty interesting. Maybe not as fascinating as, say, Britney Spears’ ongoing meltdown, but Ace is a sucker for any U.S. document that impels citizens by force of law to perform any action “briskly” or “ceremoniously” (raising and lowering the flag, respectively, according to section 7a of the United States Flag Code).
According to the U.S. Flag Code, state governors actually have discretion to tell government buildings to lower the American flag to half-mast. All other flags, though, must follow suit, because it violates the same code to fly any flag higher than Old Glory. But why would the governor tell his administrative minions to lower the Commonwealth flag and not the American? To answer that question, Ace went ever more specific, looking to the section on flag display in Virginia’s Practical Protocol Guide. It turns out that in Virginia, unlike in some other states, there’s a protocol in place to lower the Commonwealth flag for certain events that don’t require the lowering of the American flag. Basically, it all boils down to who gets the last word in putting their bureaucratic mumbo jumbo in writing. In this case, Bruce Brooks, director of facilities management for the capital, tells Ace that “the last time we lowered a state flag was for a former member of the legislature.” Since there’s a protocol in place for exactly such an occasion, down went the flag, and Ace reckons that was when you saw the apparent deviation.
Beware, though, if the next time you’re in Richmond, the Commonwealth flag is at full-mast and the American at half. That’s gonna mean that either the South has risen again or you’re in Bizarro World, and neither thought is one that Ace relishes.