At a campaign event in Colorado, Mitt Romney looks on as scoutmaster Bill… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Mitt Romney tried out many stories on the campaign trail this fall to illustrate his belief in the enduring spirit of America. Some were personal — delving into his ministerial duties as a leader in his church. Others were about people whose courage has inspired him.
Ultimately, the Republican nominee settled on one story that has become the closing anecdote in many of his speeches: The tale of an American flag sent into outer space and recovered from the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger in perfect condition.
These days Romney often leads into the story by telling the crowd, as he did Saturday night in this Denver suburb, that his confidence in America’s future stems from his view that Americans are a people who “give ourselves to things larger than ourselves.”
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As a Boy Scout leader some years ago, Romney said he attended a ceremony for young Eagle Scouts where a scoutmaster from Monument, Colo., told the story of his troop asking NASA officials to take their American flag on the Challenger mission. NASA agreed.
As Romney tells the story, the boys watched with pride as they saw the Challenger shuttle launch into the air. “Then,” Romney said, “they saw it explode on the TV screen in front of their eyes.”
The scoutmaster repeatedly called NASA after the Challenger crash, asking if any remnant of the flag had been recovered.
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In Romney’s recounting, a NASA official told the scoutmaster after a few weeks that the agency had a presentation to make to the Boy Scout troop: “So NASA came together and the boys were there,” Romney told the crowd Saturday night. “They presented the boys with this plastic container, and they open it up and inside was the American flag, their flag, in perfect condition.”
Romney said when he first heard the story from the scoutmaster, William Tolbert — who is now a major in the United States Air Force assigned to the Space Command — he was sitting next to the flag at the Eagle Scout ceremony. “I reached over and I grabbed that flag and held it out, and it was as if electricity was running through my arm,” Romney said.
“Because I thought about all the men and women in our space program who put themselves in danger’s path out of a desire for learning and knowledge, for us,” the candidate continued. “This is the American way. I think of all of our servicemen and women who put themselves in harm’s way for freedom and for us.”
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On Saturday night though, there was a new addition to the story. Noting they weren’t far from Monument, Colo., Romney said he hadn’t seen “that flag in, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years.”
At that moment, Romney welcomed that very scoutmaster on stage -- and with him was the Challenger flag. To huge cheers, Tolbert walked the perimeter of the stage showing the flag, which was folded in a triangle and framed.
“Thank you, come on up here. Now did I get that story right?” Romney asked.
“You did, sir,” Tolbert replied.
“That’s great,” Romney said. “That is a great flag representing the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.”