How many of us remember Stanley K. Hathaway?
Or Thomas S. Kleppe?
How many folks are concerned about where David Bernhardt may be?
Not exactly household names?
Hathaway and Kleppe were both secretaries of the Interior, and both came from states neighboring Montana (Hathaway from Wyoming, Kleppe from North Dakota). Both served in the mid-1970s, and now mostly reside on lists of Interior secretaries.
As for Bernhardt, he is currently deputy secretary of the Interior.
We bring their names up not as some extreme trivia question, but as the best demonstration that citizens don't hang on every move nor every leader within the Department of The Interior.
While anyone working for the Department of The Interior deserves our thanks, especially in a place with plenty of public lands like Montana, the leaders who serve or who have served aren't exactly a top concern or even top of mind.
Yet Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke believes that it is essential that Interior employees and the public know exactly when he is in the office. In a rather unbelievable story published in The Washington Post, Zinke has ordered that the Department of the Interior Secretary flag (yes, there is such a thing) be flown above the Interior's office building when he is there, and taken down when he leaves.
The gesture gets repeated daily, and is a custom apparently borrowed from the military. When Zinke is not on site in D.C., a flag is flown whenever the deputy secretary is in the building.
The Washington Post reports that many of the cabinet-level secretaries have their own flags, although they haven't been used in decades. Apparently the pretentious gesture does little more than add to wasteful government spending by buying useless flags. In addition, it also serves as a snooty reminder of just how much Zinke apparently thinks of himself — that he needs a flag to announce his arrival.
Spokeswoman Heather Swift had the chutzpah to claim that flying the flag when Zinke was in the building was a matter of accountability — you know, people can actually tell when he's at the office.
Yet was that really the issue with voters? Do voters really believe that cabinet secretaries don't show up at the office? We think more citizens are concerned about what Zinke does once he's at the office, not where is he actually at.
Wasting what is probably a nominal amount on a flag that no one recognizes is problematic: That's the entire purpose of a flag — everyone has to understand the symbol. Beyond that, government officials have to go to the work of raising and lowering a flag when Zinke is around. If that's not a waste of government time, we don't know what is. For an administration that pledged to redouble efforts on matters important to the American people, Zinke would do well to remember the people aren't clamoring for more flags.
The gesture isn't symbolic, as Zinke's staff would have you believe, it's exactly what's wrong with government. No one is worried about when Zinke is in "garrison" — as his staff puts it. The Trump Administration has touted that it is draining the swamp and returning America back to the citizens. But having the heraldry of a flag announcing that Zinke is in the building is an elitism that seems more fit for royalty and demonstrates that Zinke believes a certain amount of genuflection is order.
The Washington Post reports that Zinke also has commissioned commemorative coins with his name on them to give to staff and visitors. Zinke’s predecessors and some other Cabinet secretaries have coins bearing agency seals, but not personalized ones.
These actions are pompous and a betrayal of his Montana roots. Montana is the kind of place where most of us know our senators and governor by their first name. We live in a state that values face-to-face conversation that doesn't have to happen through intermediaries and underlings. We also believe a nod, handshake or the quick honk of a horn is enough of a greeting. We don't need flags.
Beyond the sheer arrogance it takes to announce your presence with flags, Zinke's actions are not historic and they're not a move toward transparency. Instead, they represent militarization of civilian government. The tradition of flying flags has its American roots in the military when commanders were on site.
While Zinke's service in the military is admirable, secretary of Interior is not a military post. We're not a government run by the military. This is a civilian government still. While we don't doubt Zinke's long military career may help him in leadership, it was not a prerequisite.
Secretary Zinke, running a flag up a flagpole may earn you a salute from your staff, but it won't earn you respect.