The sage continues.
The campaign was in the throes of an identity crisis by June 24, when a number of senior strategists gathered at 9:30 a.m. in a conference room of McCainâ€™s campaign headquarters in Arlington. As one participant said later, the meeting was convened â€œbecause we still couldnâ€™t answer the question, â€˜Why elect John McCain?â€™ â€ Considering that the election was less than five months away, this was not a good sign.
â€œWe had a narrative problem,â€ Matt McDonald recalls. â€œObama had a story line: â€˜Bush is the problem. Iâ€™m not going to be Bush, and McCain will be.â€™ Our story line, I argued, had to be that itâ€™s not about Bush â€” itâ€™s Congress, itâ€™s Washington. And Obama would be more about partisanship, while John McCain would buck the party line and bring people together.â€
The others could see McDonaldâ€™s line of reasoning â€” and above all, the need to separate McCain from Bush. But the message seemed antiseptic, impersonal. That was when the keeper of McCainâ€™s biography, Mark Salter, took the floor. Thereâ€™s a reason McCain bucks his party, McDonald remembers Salter arguing. Itâ€™s because he puts his country ahead of party. Then the speechwriter, who is not known for his dispassion, began to yell: â€œWeâ€™re talking about someone who was willing to die before losing his honor! He would die!â€
Salter stalked out of the meeting to have a cigarette and didnâ€™t return. But he had said enough. The metanarrative of Heroic Fighter was now joined with one that evoked postpartisan statesmanship. The new narrative needed a label. The first version was â€œA Love for America.â€ Then â€œAmerica First.â€ And finally, the one that stuck: â€œCountry First.â€
Country First was a good line, and the way McCain’s camp rolled it out next proved to be their most effective attack yet against Obama.