Genuine humility, good humor, civility, and kindness can all serve you well in public life. Johnny Isakson lived those attributes, and then some.
The only person in Georgia history to serve in the State House, State Senate, U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Senate, as well as the only Republican to be elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate, and the only U.S. Senator, during his final term, to chair two Committees -- Veterans Affairs, and Ethics. Johnny Isakson was a man of accomplishment, a leader with vision and always willing to work with others, find common ground and get things done for the people of Georgia as well as our nation.
Senator Isakson is a personal hero, but he is also my friend. As Johnny was fond of saying frequently, “There are two kinds of people in this world for me...friends and future friends.” Seeing and speaking with him frequently over 30+ years, I would place his current elected title in front of his name, he would smile, sometimes even chuckle and softly correct me by saying, “Just Johnny.”
In an era where national politics, in particular, have become toxic and polarizing we can use a great deal more of that thinking and sentiment, or as I often said of Johnny, more who will walk their talk.
Isakson had first run for election in 1974 and lost. He ran again in 1976 and won his State House District, serving seven terms, the last four as State House Minority Leader. Along with two State Senators, Bob Bell and Paul Coverdell, and some sage advice by folks like Bo Callaway, the trio would form the pillars of what evolved into the Georgia Republican Party of today. Johnny was also the last of those three to exit the stage.
Johnny ran for Governor in 1990 and lost in the General Election to then Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller. Like many other Georgia Democrats, Governor Miller still thought very highly of his opponent, and when Georgia’s Blue Dam began to crack in 1994, with Georgian’s electing a majority GOP congressional delegation and State School Superintendent, Linda Schrenko, Miller asked Isakson to chair the State School Board, otherwise comprised of longtime Democrats, in part to ensure that the School Board and School Superintendent did not start out butting heads and at partisan cross purposes.
Isakson would later return to the General Assembly, this time the State Senate, and later make a run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Isakson released a campaign ad, acknowledging his support for abortion rights, causing him to lose the GOP Primary to Guy Millner in a race to succeed departing Senator Sam Nunn. Millner would score the second of his three big statewide losses to Senator-elect Max Cleland.
In 1998, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced he would not seek re-election to his 11th term, vacating the 7th Congressional District seat, which Isakson would go on to win. Isakson served three terms in Congress, re-elected with 80 percent of the vote in his final term there. U.S. Senator Zell Miller had been appointed to fill the unexpired term of Senator Paul Coverdell, who died suddenly in the summer of 2000. Miller, Isakson’s former opponent, but longtime friend, announced he would not seek re-election. Isakson immediately entered the field, and was later elected to the Senate, returned three times by Georgia voters.
Several years ago, while racing to catch a flight at Hartsfield, there was an older gentleman hobbling and barely making any progress in the cross-walk, I honked the horn and startled him, before realizing that this slightly hunched fellow was Johnny Isakson. I pulled over and got out of my car, and despite the rude honk, Johnny was as cordial as ever, urging me to come to visit him for coffee, in D.C. or his Georgia district office. I knew something was off, but his optimism, smile, and those twinkling eyes were unchanged. It would be nearly 18 months before he went public with his Parkinson’s prognosis.
And while the damage to his body, nervous system, and musculature was ongoing, his mind remained razor sharp. He would continue starting each day with 10,000 steps on his treadmill, warding off this progressive disease as long as he was physically able. The bumper stickers for his last election simply read, “Vote for Johnny,” and I could always hear that ...Just Johnny...refrain from him in my head. Now more than ever, we could use a few more Just Johnny’s...just like him as well.
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