The Washington Post

Romney introduces scoutmaster whose troop honors the Challenger flag

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For a candidate searching for a moment, Mitt Romney found one here Saturday night.

At the last and biggest of his four Saturday rallies, in front of a crowd of 17,000 people crackling with enthusiasm, one of the characters from the Republican presidential nominee's stump speech came to life.

For months, Romney has waxed poetic about a Boy Scout scoutmaster from Monument, Colo., who procured an American flag, big and with gold tassels, for his young scouts and gave it to NASA to send it up in the space shuttle Challenger on its next mission. On Jan. 28, 1986, the troop turned on the television in to see the shuttle’s launch, only to watch it explode in the sky 73 seconds after takeoff, killing the crew.

Months later, the flag was discovered the shuttle's wreckage -- still sealed in plastic and in perfect condition. At the time, Romney was a volunteer scout leader himself and had a chance to touch the flag. As he tells it, it felt like electricity was running through his arms. That flag, he says, represents America’s ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.

At Saturday night’s rally in this Denver suburb, Romney retold the story. But the his speech took a surprise detour.

“I haven’t seen that flag in, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years, or that scoutmaster, but Monument, Colorado, is not that far from here,” Romney said. “Would you please welcome that scoutmaster from Monument, Colorado, and that flag!”

Onto the stage walked Maj. William Tolbert, who is assigned to the Air Force Space Command. Tolbert was carrying a small American flag from NASA folded in a glass box, which he presented to Romney as a memento.

“Now, did I get that story right?” Romney asked Tolbert.

“You did, sir,” he replied.

“That’s great,” Romney said. “That is a great flag representing the greatest nation in the history of the earth.”

The crowd, which filled the Comfort Dental Amphitheater here, rose to its feet. And Romney stood and smiled, soaking in the moment.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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