Flag Etiquette 101

It’s been left outside in the rain, stepped on, torn, burned, dropped, stretched in Lycra across people’s chests, and generally undervalued. Now, with the help of a few etiquette experts, the American flag is fighting back.

Flag Day 2008 is nigh (this Saturday, for those who haven’t yet planned their homage to Betsy Ross), but those few Americans who have a tight grasp on the U.S. Flag Code have an announcement: Breaches in flag etiquette are nearly everywhere you look.

And that includes the U.S. Capitol. Experts point to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who often stands in front of five U.S. flags in her ceremony room for photo opportunities and press briefings.

To the untrained eye, that backdrop may appear to be no more than an exuberant display of patriotism. But etiquette expert Nancy Mitchell notes that according to the U.S. Flag Code, the flag should be displayed one at a time and should not be used as decoration.

“What’s happened now is that people are using [the flag] in place of bunting,” says Mitchell, a former Library of Congress protocol director and owner of The Etiquette Advocate consulting business. Last year she wrote to White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former press secretary Tony Snow to point out the administration’s improper use of the flag. “In some cases, it looks as if they’re filling up space on a stage behind a speaker,” she says about the many flag breaches she sees by politicians.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami says his boss isn’t purposely disregarding flag etiquette. “You can’t go wrong with the Red, White and Blue,” he says in an e-mail.

Still, when used this way, Mitchell thinks the flag — the ultimate symbol of American freedom — starts to “look like pipe and drape.” A prop, in other words.

Or it endures the driving rain while everyone else heads for cover. When the Washington area underwent a tornado warning last week, U.S. Capitol Police instructed Hill aides to move away from rattling windows and keep out of the howling winds and gushing skies. Yet the flags flying above the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings whipped around in the torrents, another apparent breach of the flag code.

Etiquette calls for the flag to be lowered during inclement weather.

Congress might be off the hook on this violation, though, because the updated federal protocol allows for all-weather flags to be flown in rain or shine — and even during a tornado. House sergeant at arms spokeswoman Kerri Handley says she’s “almost positive” the House office buildings’ flags are all-weather.

The Senate refectory might not get off so easily. The flag mounted on the snack bar’s back wall is partially obstructed by a metal tree holding individual-sized packets of Famous Amos cookies and Utz potato chips. The most exacting of flag-etiquette experts could argue that the refectory is going against code by using the flag for commercial purposes. (Might a tourist be lured into buying some pretzels out of a sense of patriotic duty?)

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, says snack bar employees put the flag up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to show their patriotism. But the bar’s flag should be potato chip-free soon, Malecki said upon The Hill’s inquiry. She noted the Architect would soon be providing the mini-mart with a flagpole.

Still, etiquette experts are fighting an uphill battle. The U.S. Flag Code is not law and thus not enforceable.

“No penalty or punishment is specified in the Flag Code for display of the flag of the United States in a manner other than as suggested,” states a Congressional Research Service report from July 2007.

This is a fact that’s not lost on Jeffrey Kohn, a retired psychiatrist and flag expert affiliated with the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

The flag code is social commentary more than anything else, he says. With no way to enforce it, those concerned about the flag’s treatment are left to trust their fellow citizens’ intentions.

“People don’t necessarily use the flag properly, but they use it patriotically,” he says.

Kohn says the most common breach of flag etiquette is its use as decoration. This includes wearing the flag in any shape or form — a violation even Kohn confesses to.

“How many people own flag ties, including me?” he says.

Even lawmakers’ actions have flown in the face of the Flag Code’s warning against wearing the stars and stripes. Last year, Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would restrict federal funds to schools that prohibit their students from wearing the flag in a respectful manner.

Both members explain that they think people’s proud display of patriotism — in this case, on their clothes — trumps whatever rule of etiquette they may be breaking.

And even when members of Congress follow the Flag Code faithfully, they sometimes can’t win.

Tancredo says that he permanently flies a flag over his Littleton, Colo., home but that he’s received complaints from neighbors because they think the floodlights he uses to illuminate it are too bright. The code, however, calls for a flag to be lighted if it’s flown at night.

Other members say they know or abide by only bits and pieces of flag code, too. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) says he learned about flag code in 4-H and Future Farmers of America and flies a flag at his home, “but I don’t follow all of [flag protocol], unfortunately,”

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Hope for improved flag etiquette on the Hill lies in people like Meg Murphy, the protocol director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She constantly faces flag-etiquette questions when preparing the committee room for visits from international dignitaries.

How does she do it?

She pulls out the book Protocol by Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis from the top left-hand drawer of her desk.

“It’s the Bible for protocol officers,” she says while flipping through pages that have diagrams on flag placement. “There’s a whole chapter on flags.”

Etiquette experts Mitchell and Kohn note, however, that someone like Murphy is the exception. They see that, in general, Americans are becoming less and less familiar with flag protocol.

Where, then, is the flag headed?

“If we turn our back long enough,” Mitchell says, “caterers will start using the flag for tablecloths.”