Former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke lit up social media sites Friday with news reports about his resurrection of a little-known and apparently never-used military ritual at the Interior Department’s downtown Washington headquarters.
Zinke, appointed secretary of the Interior by President Donald Trump earlier this year, flies a special secretarial flag over the building whenever he’s in the D.C. office.
When he’s not, a different flag is flown, indicating that Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is in the house.
In fact, the Washington Post reported that a flag-flying involves a new ritual whereby an Interior Department security officer takes an elevator to the seventh floor whenever Zinke enters the building, then climbs the stairs to the roof and raises the secretarial flag.
When Zinke leaves, the ritual is repeated and the flag is brought down.
The banner is blue and features the agency’s bison seal surrounded by seven white stars representing the department’s seven bureaus.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift told the Post that Zinke – a former Navy officer – sees the flag-flying tradition as “a major sign of transparency.”
“Ryan Zinke is proud and honored to lead the Department of Interior, and is restoring honor and tradition to the department, whether it’s flying the flag when he is in garrison or restoring traditional access to public lands,” Swift wrote in an email.
Social media commentators both mocked the tradition and noted its similarity to the British royal practice of flying Queen Elizabeth’s flag when she is in residence at Buckingham Palace.
Others noted the similarity between the secretary’s flag and that of the Montana’s Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, which Zinke displayed in his Capitol office during his two years as the state’s U.S. House member.
More likely, it’s a reflection of Zinke’s tenure in the Navy, where he was a SEAL commander.
As the Post reported: “Personal flags for federal government officials have a proud, if arcane, history that originated with the secretary of the Navy in 1866, to help sailing ships in the fleet recognize which one carried the naval commander. The Coast Guard and secretary of war wanted one, too.”
No other members of Trump’s Cabinet fly secretarial flags over their departments, and the Post could find no former administration officials who observed the ritual during their tenures.
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current, where this story originally appeared.