New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, no stranger to controversy, is standing firm in his decision to fly flags at half-staff on behalf of Whitney Houston, despite complaints that the late pop singer should not have that recognition because of her history of drug problems.
The governor has ordered flags at government buildings to be flown at half-staff Saturday, the day of Houston’s funeral at the Newark, N.J., church where she sang as a child. The body of the 48-year-old musical icon was found Saturday in the bathtub of her guest room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
There has been no ruling on the cause of death, but officials have said there were “no obvious signs of criminal intent.” Toxicology tests are under way to determine if drugs were involved.
Houston, in television interviews, had acknowledged past drug and alcohol problems and the fact that she had been in rehabilitation. Such problems were one reason for complaints about Christie’s decision to lower the flags.
Christie, who has built a national reputation for his pugnacious charm, refused to give ground to opponents. He told critics that Houston had made significant cultural contributions to the state.
“For those people who say, ‘I don’t think she deserves it,’ I say to them, 'I understand that you don’t think that. I do, and it’s my executive order,' " Christie said this week.
“I’ve seen these messages and emails that have come to me disparaging her for her troubles with substance abuse,” Christie said. “What I’d say to everybody is: There but for the grace of God go I.”
On Thursday, Christie’s decision was backed by FOX News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who has been outspoken about Houston's death and her use of drugs.
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, O’Reilly said it was right to lower the flags and also urged society to deal more forcefully with drug abuse.
“I think we should respect the life and talent of Whitney Houston. I said a prayer when I heard she died. This isn't a personal thing. This is a preventive thing. I want society and media to tell the truth about drug and alcohol addiction,” O’Reilly said. “Let's stop exploiting it and start explaining it.”
The other argument levied against the governor is that a pop singer doesn’t have the standing in society to merit the lowering of the flags.
In response, Christie noted that he has ordered flags flown at half-staff for all 31 fallen New Jersey soldiers and every slain police officer during his time in office.
He also ordered flags lowered last year for Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Houston’s funeral will be private, but the Associated Press will have a video camera inside and will stream the service.
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat Christie, attend a funeral last month for Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, 75. Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press