Georgia Mourns Johnny Isakson, A Statesman and Friend

This week’s Courier Herald column:

We lost a great leader this week.  Johnny Isakson was the kind of person that made you proud to be a Georgian.

Senator Isakson said what he meant and meant what he said.  He did so with a smile and humility.  He was a man who accomplished much in his personal, professional, and political life but remained humble, kind, and always seemed quite comfortable with who he was.

He was both an architect and a foot soldier of the modern Georgia Republican party.  A mentor to many of us along the way, he gave us a direct and ever present example of what a servant-leader looked like, acted like, and sounded like.

I remain proud to call him a friend, which put me in one of his two categories of people: Friends and future friends.  Senator Isakson didn’t have enemies, he just had some folks who for whatever reason hadn’t become friends yet.  It didn’t deter him from trying, and repeating as necessary.

Because he was comfortable with who he was and what he believed, he could make his mind up pretty quickly as issues arose.   His wisdom was valued to the point that many an elected official when trying to decide how to approach an issue or what to release in a statement would ask “Where is Johnny on this one?”

This level of respect and trust became evident when a deal needed to be reached, either within the Republican caucus or across party lines.  A life-long businessman in the field of real estate, Senator Isakson was a closer.  He understood that parties will make a deal when they both leave the table feeling they are better off than they were before shaking hands on the agreement.

I asked him, not quite a decade ago, why he was still serving.  Washington was growing bitterly partisan, gridlock was being celebrated and institutionalized as the status quo, and the original Tea Party movement had morphed into a circular firing squad of purity tests. 

He was customarily direct in his answer, while reassuring me to remain engaged at the same time.  He told me that he believed there were still deals to be done, but too many of his peers weren’t interested in driving them home.  He knew that he could, and would continue to do so as long as he was needed.

His health gave him an earlier timeline for departure than he wanted.  His farewell address echoed his sentiments from that earlier conversation however.  He implored his colleagues from both sides of the aisle to work together, and to get things done.  His rhetoric was half carrot, half stick, and completely directed at getting more parties to sit down at the closing table.

His ability to make a deal didn’t mean he lacked core beliefs or that he would cave on things important to him.  He would fight for those in his corner, or for those who couldn’t fight themselves, so long as he believed the cause was just.

This involved passing legislation to protect Peace Corps workers after the death of Kate Puzey, convincing the George W. Bush White House to change their position on allowing Delta Airlines more time to restructure their pension programs to prevent default, or defending the record and honor of former POW and fellow Senator John McCain.

Senator Isakson’s remarks upon Senator McCain’s death are some of the most personal he made from the Senate.  He emphasized the sacrifice that McCain made as a prisoner of war. 

He talked about how his best friend Jackson Elliott Cox III died in Vietnam while he had joined the National Guard.  Isakson wanted to serve but still remain in a position to get married and begin a life stateside if possible.  In praising McCain and Cox’s service, he openly questioned if he and others did as much as he could have in that era.  He then said, politely and pointedly, “anybody who in any way tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping.”

It’s not the kind of speech you hear from many politicians.  It’s exactly what you heard when you listened to someone with the humility, introspection, and wisdom of Johnny Isakson. 

His work is now done and he is free from all of his burdens.  We still have work to do, however.  The deal we all need to close is moving more of our future friends into the friends column.

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