Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner recently told a group of Republicans that, contrary to President Obama's executive order, officials should not have lowered flags across the country in honor of Nelson Mandela. His reason? Mandela's not an American.
"Lowering the flag should be for mourning Americans and not for foreign leaders," Sensenbrenner said, reportedly to cheers.
Sensenbrenner is not the only one to oppose lowering the flag on Mandela's behalf. A South Carolina sheriff, Rick Clark, also refused. He, too, argued that the flag should only be lowered for American citizens. "To show a sign of respect for what Nelson Mandela's done, I have no problem with lowering it in South Africa, in their country," Clark said. "But in our country, it should be the people, in my opinion, who have sacrificed for our country."
The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that it is a rare honor for American flags to be flown at half-mast following the death of a foreign dignitary, but Republican and Democratic presidents have issued orders similar to Obama's in the past. The paper wrote:
"President George W. Bush ordered flags to fly at half-staff at the passing of Pope John Paul II in 2005, President Bill Clinton did so for Yitzhak Rabin (1995) and King Hussein of Jordan (1999), and President Ronald Reagan honored Anwar Sadat in 1981, but the historical precedent most often cited is President Lyndon Johnson’s bestowal of the honor in recognition of the passing of Winston Churchill in 1965."
Newspapers wrote front-page stories about Johnson's decision to lower the flags in tribute to Churchill. Johnson described the former British leader as "one of our own."
With his executive order, Obama was exercising a power assigned to the president by federal legislation, the Christian Science Monitor said. Lowering the flags to half-staff is meant to indicate a nation in mourning.
Interestingly, Sensenbrenner once pushed a resolution urging Bush to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government, to John Paul II. The resolution passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003, but the Senate did not approve it.