“I hope and pray people will realize we can’t continue to level brickbats against each other,” Isakson said in an interview just off the Senate floor. “We’ve got to start listening. We’ve got to stop branding and start moving.”
Isakson’s message is not all that new. Many senators deliver similar swan songs before regularly scheduled retirements or just after losing reelection. After learning in 2017 that he had brain cancer, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stood a few feet from Isakson’s desk and pleaded for senators to “stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths” on radio and cable news.
But Isakson’s message this week carried an even greater weight, because his reputation is so spotless and his work ethic so admired. Unlike McCain, who died last year, Isakson has always kept his temper in check. What few enemies Isakson might have probably think they are close allies.
He never sought national office or party leadership, his highest aspiration coming as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
And to make people smile.
“Johnny Isakson is part of the glue that holds this place together. Everybody respects his decency, his common sense, his humor, his kindness,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
“If Jesus were watching the Senate and he watched Johnny Isakson, he would say, ‘there’s a good man,’ ” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who grew close to the Georgian in just 11 months in the Senate.
In a perfect metaphor to his service, this consummate genteel Southerner managed to serve from 1999 through 2019 yet will never vote on a presidential impeachment.
He won a special election to the House in February 1999 to succeed Newt Gingrich, the GOP House speaker whose push to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 led to his own resignation. And Isakson, who won his Senate seat in 2004, is resigning Dec. 31, just days before the likely start of an impeachment trial of President Trump.
This genuine adoration leads to a critical question: If Isakson cannot halt the Senate’s slow and steady fade from relevance, who can?
“I truly don’t know a single person who didn’t like Johnny Isakson,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another moderate, said late Tuesday. At that moment, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) stepped out of a basement subway. A close friend of Isakson’s, Alexander will retire at the end of 2020.
“I’m feeling increasingly lonely, if that’s what you’re asking. Yes, I am. It’s not good,” Collins said.
Similar to McCain’s in 2017, Isakson’s tribute day came as he stares down his own mortality. He has suffered a sharp decline from Parkinson’s disease, leading to a mid-July fall that fractured ribs. He announced in August that he would resign Dec. 31 with three years left on his third Senate term.
That set off a three-month scramble to try to win the favor of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), an informal campaign focused almost entirely on who would be the most pro-Trump appointee to the seat. A Republican schism occurred when Kemp decided against Trump’s preferred pick, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), who has been a strong presidential defender over the impeachment inquiry, and tapped business executive Kelly Loeffler.
It was a terrible insult to Isakson’s legacy, a feeding frenzy over partisan loyalty to win the temporary appointment until the November 2020 elections. Isakson’s idea of partisan division was to put people into the camps of “friends and future friends.”
In Tuesday’s speech, and the interview Wednesday, Isakson declined to either praise or take shots at anyone by name, aside from his longtime friend, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). A few weeks ago, the civil rights icon hosted a rare House tribute for a departing senator that ended with the 79-year-old Democrat embracing the 74-year-old Republican.
But Isakson’s displeasure with today’s politics is clear. “People don’t understand what bipartisan means. Bipartisan is a state of mind and a state of being,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve got too many people describing the problems and not enough people looking for the answers.”
When Romney arrived in the Senate in January, he noticed very few senators paid attention during the endless GOP luncheons, talking to friends or looking at their phones. Until Isakson spoke.
“Everyone stops and listens. And I thought, wow, this is an unusual guy,” the 2012 GOP presidential nominee said. He immediately requested a meeting.
“Keep your head down, keep quiet, unless you got something to say,” Isakson told the new celebrity senator. “Pick issues that are important to you and find people that you can align with; it will make a difference.”
Romney was amazed that Isakson could be so beloved while chairing the Ethics Committee, the senatorial equivalent of a police squad’s internal affairs unit. Coons has been Isakson’s wing man on that tough task, an outpost in which they became so close that Coons struggled to compose himself wondering who would take up Isakson’s mantle.
‘That’s a role I need to fill going forward,” Coons said, imagining some senators’ thoughts.
He then entered the senators-only lunch for Isakson. The last such bipartisan lunch honoring one senator came in 2013 to commemorate McCain’s 40th anniversary of being released as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
On Tuesday, the emotions poured forth both for Isakson and for what the Senate was about to lose. But the departing senator would not give up, heading to the floor after lunch for his farewell address.
Requiring a wheelchair to move around the Capitol, Isakson hoisted himself up to his desk to make one last entreaty to his colleagues to move beyond their political fears so they could see “the end of a bad time and the beginning of a new one.”
“I want to live long enough to see both,” he said.