I met Johnny Isakson a decade ago. Others have known him longer and can tell you about him in the detail required for the history books, in light of his announcement that he will leave the U.S. Senate at year’s end due to his health. I’m going to tell you what I’ve seen from him, and in him, because it’s what I’m going to miss about him.
Ten years ago I was a 30-year-old columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, learning on the job in a way that probably shouldn’t have been allowed. But everything goes faster these days, and so I came to be at Atlanta’s OK Cafe, meeting our (at the time) first-term, junior senator.
It was the summer of the Obamacare town halls. The nascent tea party had moved from rallying against bailouts and “stimulus” to confronting Democratic members of Congress about their forced reorganization of the healthcare sector.
My editor, who’d accompanied us to lunch, suggested that the senator let me tag along for some of his own town halls. Johnny (no one refers to him as “Isakson,” not even those who make his campaign materials, so to heck with AP style for today) quickly agreed, and bright and early one morning soon afterward I rendezvoused with him down in Claxton.
We left my car behind and took off in a black SUV down U.S. 301 toward Glennville.
One thing you may have forgotten about politics in the summer of 2009 was a) Republicans were not immune from the tea partiers’ fury, and b) this was fairly novel. Their relatively swift downfall, three years after holding all the levers of power, had earned them no sympathy from their own base.
Combine that with the fact our entire relationship at that point consisted of one luncheon, and it’s remarkable in hindsight that Johnny – who was up for re-election in 2010 – spoke so freely with me.
That openness as an elected official is one thing about him I’ll miss.
We arrived directly in Glennville, where he was to speak to the local Rotary Club’s lunch meeting. As I recall, he made remarks to the effect of, I’m willing to talk about healthcare reform, but this isn’t the right answer. Again, to jog your memory: Politics in 2009 hadn’t yet reached the fever-pitch tribalism of today, but a Republican then took a real risk by signaling any openness to change. He took questions from the audience. All of them, by my recollection.
That willingness to speak his mind and stand his ground, in the name of doing right by the American people, is another thing I’ll miss about him.
After that, we climbed back into the SUV and headed down to Jesup. The topic there was not Obamacare. Rather, the senator held a field hearing about veterans’ affairs, specifically their access to healthcare.
If you have followed Johnny’s Senate career at all, you know serving those who have served their country has been a priority.
I expect to read a number of tributes to the senator – he’s earned them – and most of them will speak to his willingness to reach across the aisle, to compromise. That’s true, but incomplete.
Yes, Johnny Isakson has played a different game in Washington than most of late, from either party. The game has changed and only the old hands are allowed to play by the old rules, like Gordie Howe taking the ice without a helmet.
But what made Johnny really different, to me, was that all those admirable traits – his openness, his willingness to speak his mind but also to compromise when that was called for – stemmed from a genuine humility.
Don’t read into that statement too much about anyone else; it’s about him, not an oblique reference to others. But it is what I’ll miss about having him represent our state in the Senate, and our nation is the poorer for having few cut from his cloth.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.