Should flags fly at half-staff to mark the death of Whitney Houston?
That question has become the center of the latest Internet-inspired storm cloud to hover over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie announced Tuesday at a news conference that U.S. and New Jersey flags would be lowered for one day -- Saturday, the day of Houston's funeral -- to honor a New Jerseyan who was "an important part of the cultural fabric of this state."
As word spread via social media, response was fast and often furious. A pop star with a history of drug abuse does not deserve an honor more typically given to a service member fallen in the line of duty, many said.
By Wednesday, the gossip website TMZ was calling the governor's office for comment. The Facebook page for the Newseum, the museum in the nation's capital dedicated to the news business, was flooded with comments. And the governor's office was getting calls and e-mails -- thanks to Twitter, where the governor's contact information was retweeted so that those upset could register complaints.
"I've seen these messages and e-mails that have come to me disparaging her for her troubles with substance abuse," Christie said Wednesday at a news conference in North Jersey. "What I'd say to everybody is: 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
Houston, 48, who lived in Christie's hometown of Mendham, died last weekend at a Beverly Hills hotel. The cause of death has not yet been determined; toxicology test results are pending. Bottles of prescription medication were found in the room, but authorities said they were not an unusually large number.
Houston's funeral will be Saturday in Newark.
Christie said he rejected the idea that Houston "forfeited the good things that she did" because of her history of drug abuse. He said many New Jerseyans have friends and family members who struggle with substance abuse.
"Being criticized in this job is no longer a surprise on any day," Christie said. "And the fact is that whenever you make decisions that involve emotion, those are particularly apt for criticism."
The governor has issued 42 executive orders to fly flags at half-staff. Of those, 31 were for the deaths of servicemen and women, two were for police officers, six were for public officials, and one was for a Sept. 11 commemoration.
Two others did not meet the traditional categories: Morristown High School baseball coach Harry Shatel, the state's all-time leader in wins, and E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
"There are many contributions that you can make to our state that merit this honor upon your death," Christie said. "Some of them are political. Some of them are military. Some of them are other avenues of public service, like police officers, firefighters, and others. And some of them are cultural."
Federal code indicates that governors should fly flags at half-staff by order of the president and also in the event of the death of a member of the military or government official from that particular state.
The code makes no specification for the deaths of pop sensations. It doesn't forbid such memorializing, either.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.
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