Johnny Isakson is preparing to be a former Senator, having
also been a former member of the U.S. House, Georgia Senate, and Georgia
House. As one of the founding fathers of
the modern Georgia Republican Party, his career of public service spans 45
years. His retirement at the end of the
year marks the end of an era, and though he wouldn’t say that directly, he
Isakson’s farewell speech to the Senate last week wasn’t about him nor his lengthy record of accomplishments. Instead, it part chiding and part pleading of his peers to seek common ground and civility and solve actual problems facing the country.
The Isakson era of politics began when Democrats were the
party of Kennedy and Republicans were ascending to the party of Reagan. One was still asking “ask not what your
country can do for you, but you can do for your country.” The other had a movement conservative President
elected who invited an unapologetically liberal Speaker down to the White House
for beer where they negotiated compromises while implementing the “Reagan
Like Reagan, Isakson’s core is firmly rooted in conservatism.
Also like Reagan, his actions have been pragmatic to get as much of his beliefs
enacted while solving problems and moving to the next one. Rather than participating in back-bench bomb
throwing to generate headlines, Isakson took a much harder path of bipartisan
diplomacy to get things done.
I had the pleasure of having a private lunch with him in
Washington about five years ago. I was
sitting with my back to the room when his face lit up as someone behind me
entered. He beamed “One of my best
friends just walked in and I want to introduce you.” As I turned around I was quite surprised and
even a bit confused to be face to face with California Senator Barbara Boxer.
I was later talking to a member of his staff who asked about
our lunch and I had to ask the question, as it was clear from the brief
interaction that the two were actually close friends. The answer helped me understand more about
Isakson’s legislative career than any other anecdote.
I was told simply that Isakson was the person that Republican
Senators trusted to forge deals with Democrats on legislation that often didn’t
make headlines but were needed. Boxer
had the same reputation with the Democratic caucus. Thus, when leadership determined that a bill
needed to “get done”, they would often hand it over to Isakson and Boxer to do
the thankless task of working out the details in a way that would be acceptable
to the members of each respective party.
That level of trust shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, as
each was selected to lead their party on the Senate Ethics Committee. A Senator that is trusted to guide the judgment
process of his or her peers is also one that will be trusted with language of a
bill that will ultimately get a “yes” vote.
And thus, while many Senators focused on public
pontifications regarding bills that would never become law, Isakson spent his
Senate career doing the quiet but effective job of legislating.
During that same lunch I asked him, bluntly, why he was
still doing this. He didn’t need it, politics was becoming a thankless
proposition, and his health had just begun to turn. He was quick and direct in his response. “There’s still a deal to be had up here, and
most of my peers say it can’t get done. If I don’t try, it might not get done.”
Isakson noted at the beginning of his speech that while he’s
not at the point yet where he physically can’t do the job, he’s getting
close. And throughout the rest of his
speech – and his pleas to solve problems – I could hear those words from our
lunch ringing loudly.
His speech wasn’t about him.
It was a direct charge to his fellow Senators to step up and fill the
void, to reach across the aisle and get things done. It was a charge to see members of the
minority party not as those that have been conquered, but those that represent
fellow Americans with different viewpoints.
Near the closing, Isakson offered “I’m not leaving you….I’ll
be back to make this speech again sometime, and give you a progress
report. We need some progress.” “Progress”
on Isakson’s terms isn’t measured in volume of bills passed or laws created,
but in problems solved.
The political era of Johnny Isakson is closing. His speech, and his charge to his peers and
to us, is that for the American era to continue, we need more common
ground. America needs some progress.
Publisher of GeorgiaPol.com
UGA & GSU degrees in Economics
Executive Director for PolicyBEST
Interests are public policy solutions in Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation that keep GA competitive and a great place to live.