Finding the meaning of 'Country First'

ByRick Hampson, USA TODAY

ST. PAUL -- "Country First" is John McCain's motto and the theme of the convention that nominated him for president. But what does it mean? And if country is first, where does that leave God? Family? Party?

Country First means different things to the delegates. They say it rarely rises to McCain's heroism at the Hanoi Hilton but could include Barack Obama's decision to skip a lucrative job after law school to run a voting rights program.

To the delegates, Country First means patriotism, sacrifice and service, in all forms.

It's a young Marine on the USS Iwo Jima headed for someplace dangerous. It's a church group fighting to open a homeless shelter in Montana. It's putting on your Coast Guard auxiliary uniform and rushing toward Hurricane Katrina when your wife is pregnant — and hoping your example isn't lost on your kids.

To Texas delegate Yantis Green, it's as easy as giving blood every two weeks and as hard as sending a son off to war. He says that when he first heard the slogan, "I thought, 'That makes sense. That's John McCain.' But then I realized it applies to what we all should be doing."

Politically, the Country First theme has the advantage of focusing voters on the country rather than on a party led by an unpopular president. McCain began to use the phrase consistently this summer, when he began to talk more about his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

After hearing it invoked by speaker after speaker, in video after video, delegates began to consider what Country First meant in their own lives.

•Bill Nojay, a small businessman from upstate New York, thought of his decision to become a volunteer EMT and drive an ambulance nights after work.

•Jim DiBlasi, a former Marine officer, thought of his promise to a frightened infantryman on the eve of Operation Desert Storm: "You might die, but you won't die alone. I'll be two steps in front of you." And he thought of the two men who served under him who later died in Iraq.

•John Murphy, a New Jersey county legislator, thought about how he backed a deal to allow county land to be used for a municipal park, even though it made a Democratic mayor look good.

"I feel awkward talking about that in the same context as a guy who was tortured in the Hanoi Hilton," he says, referring to McCain's wartime prison camp, "but that's something I could do."

Delegates say Country First doesn't mean God Second.

"Our country is directed by God. It's not one or the other," says Karen Pfaehler of Montana.

"We're 'One Country under God,' " agreed Ryan Owens, a young Oklahoma delegate.

Family is something else. As Pfaehler points out, anyone who volunteers for military service in some way risks putting country ahead of family. But several delegates insisted on the primacy of the family. "Any nation's moral compass is its families. Without that, we really have no nation," says Todd Burkhalter of Alabama.

Everyone at the convention seems to agree that Country First means country over party. Pfaehler says, "It's a great slogan because it means let's all put the United States first and our political party second."

In speeches Wednesday, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin belittled Obama's experience as a community organizer.

Several delegates say that kind of service also is a way of putting country first, considering how much money Obama could have made as a top graduate of the Harvard Law School. "I certainly think that was an honorable sacrifice," Burkhalter says. Green agreed: "No one can take that away from Barack Obama."

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