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Did President Obama ignore the death of Shirley Temple Black but order flags flown at half-staff to mark Whitney Houston's passing?

Published Feb 12, 2014

Claim:   President Obama ignored the death of Shirley Temple Black but ordered flags flown at half-staff for Whitney Houston's passing.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, February 2013]

Rumor has it that President Obama put the flag @half mast for drug user Whitney Houston..but completely ignored republican diplomat Shirley Temple Black.


Origins:   Title 4 of the United States Code, which outlines the role of flag of the United States, specifies occasions on which all government buildings, offices, public schools, and military bases are to fly their flags at half-staff, occasions which include the deaths of presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, and state governors. As well, the President of the United States may issue proclamations directing U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff on other occasions, as was done in recent years for the death of Pope John Paul II, the interment of Frank Buckles (the last surviving American World War I veteran), the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia's final mission (who died when the ship disintegrated during re-entry), the funeral of astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the shootings at Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, the Century Aurora theater, and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

State governors may also direct all U.S. and state flags in their jurisdictions flown at half-staff to mark the death of state officials and

state residents who died on active duty as members of the armed forces. In some cases governors may also direct that flags be lowered to half-staff to honor the passing of other state residents prominent outside the areas of government and the military.

Shirley Temple Black, the world-famous child film star of the 1930s who passed away in February 2014, took a surprisingly different career turn in her adult life: She entered politics and unsuccessfully ran for Congress (as a Republican), then was appointed (by three different Republican presidents) as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, and the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. The President of the United States at the time of her death (Barack Obama) did not issue a proclamation directing national flags to be flown at half-staff on the occasion of her funeral, nor (as far as we know) did he issue any public statement about her passing.

Pop singer Whitney Houston passed away on 11 February 2012 from an accidental drowning in a bathtub, an event which the Los Angeles County coroner's office reported was due to the "effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use." Houston, a New Jersey native, was also buried in that state, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie made a somewhat controversial decision in directing all New Jersey state flags to be flown at half-staff in her honor — critics contended that such a gesture should be reserved for members of the military, first responders, and state officials, and also that "it was wrong to honor a drug addict." Governor Christie defended his decision, saying: "I am disturbed by people who believe that because of her history of substance abuse that somehow she's forfeited the good things that she did in her life." (The previous year, Governor Christie had also directed flags to be flown at half-staff to mark the passing of Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, with little public outcry.)

It is therefore not true that President Obama ordered flags throughout the country flown at half-staff to honor Whitney Houston while ignoring the passing of Republican ambassador Shirley Temple Black. As noted above, although President Obama made no public statement marking the latter's death, neither did he direct the lowering of national flags to honor the former — that action was undertaken only at a state level by the governor of New Jersey and not at the federal level by the President. (The false claim about Whitney Houston is a common one nonetheless, one which was also widely circulated in February 2013 in conjunction with the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.)

Last updated:   13 February 2014

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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