Bookman: Isakson an honest man, too much of a legislator for modern D.C.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said in farewell remarks Tuesday his colleagues need to make more effort to reach across the aisle as partisan tensions have grown worse in recent years. He is shown here earlier this year speaking to reporters in a U.S. Capitol hallway. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is an honest man, and he deserves honesty in return. So as he announces his reluctant retirement from public life, I offer honest admiration, an honest hope that he enjoys many years still to come in private life, and an honest and significant degree of disappointment.

At 74, with a 40-year career in Georgia politics that began in the state Legislature and ended up in the U.S. Senate, Isakson has witnessed immense changes. He was a pioneer in his early years, when Republicans in Georgia were a pitiful few. Back then, he was a good-government Republican, earnest and committed to making government work better for its citizens.

He was always conservative, but at the time the word had a different, better meaning.

He and many of his fellow Georgia Republicans took a conservative approach to policy but were still conversant in and cared about the details of those policies. During the years that I covered him in the state Legislature, he was respected by those in both parties as someone who knew about and cared about the details of a bill, because in those details, in those gray areas, it was possible to give a little here and get a little there and make things a little bit better than they otherwise would have been.

He was a legislator.

With a few notable exceptions, such as in veterans policy, that is a skill that Isakson found increasingly difficult to implement in modern Washington. In a more sane world, he would have been held up as a model for other ambitious senators to follow, but in this fallen world he was instead one of those figures who are highly lauded but rarely emulated. He still operated in a world in which the point of winning elections was to get a chance to advocate for good policy, and he never seemed comfortable in a Congress when the point of advocating policy was just to get elected.

Isakson could play that role well because by nature he does not divide the world into them vs. us, good vs. evil, friend vs. enemy. I have to think that he knew better than all this, that he has grieved in his soul over what has happened to his party, to his country and to the presidency under Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, it will always be true that he did not stand publicly against it when doing so might have made a difference. This state of affairs was not inevitable – I have to think that with strong leadership it could have been prevented. But it was not.

That’s a harsh judgment on a man leaving after a lifetime of public service, but I prefer it to the alternative, which is harsher still. That alternative is that Isakson has not recognized and grieved for what has happened to his party, that he buys into its descent into anti-immigrant and at times racist rhetoric and policy, and I don’t accept that. That’s not consistent with his innate decency and intelligence.

Even before Isakson’s announcement, Georgia was considered a battleground state in the presidential election. With Sen. David Perdue up for re-election, it was also deemed a crucial state in determining control of the Senate. Now, with two Senate seats up for grabs in November of 2020, in a state that Republicans won by fewer than 55,000 votes in 2018, it becomes ground zero for that battle.

It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be ugly and trust me — by next spring you’re not going to want to turn on your TV set.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.


  1. Jay,

    You are much nicer than I would have been. Then again, you’ve covered Isakson for longer than I’ve known him.

    I don’t see him as being any different than the current Republicans in DC. If he was an honest legislator, then he would not have stood idly by while his Republican Party set a torch to the government and the Constitution over the past decade.

    If he was all for serving the people in their best interests, then I don’t think he would have run for reelection given the medical fight he knew he was going to undertake.

    He may have been a worthwhile legislator years ago, but maybe he should have bowed out in his prime as opposed to prolonging his career beyond his prime. Anyway, that’s just my view, and I look forward to replacing him next year.

    • That is because you have blinders on like always. It was progs who prevented Isakson from doing more. If they had cared more than he would be not retiring now. Lmao

      • It’s not blinders. Isakson made a lot of promises to Georgia voters that he never delivered upon.

        In 2010 for example, he ran an ad where he said he would introduce legislation to cut taxes, create jobs, and fix healthcare. The ad was titled “Helmets and Pads”. The GOP took control of the House that year and the Senate in 2014. The only thing stopping Isakson was Isakson.

        Only a brainwashed simpleton would seek to blame liberals when Republicans/Conservatives controlled the levers of government. Didn’t you make that very same brag to me a few days ago? When you’re in control and can’t produce, you are the one at fault.

    • Very Well Stated!

      His service in the General Assembly was laudable.

      His service in the House was average.

      His service in the Senate was dedicated to protecting the income stream of those who funded his candidacy.

    • Agree, Jay. He had an opportunity to be a statesman but for whatever reason, it went largely unfulfilled. Still, when history judges him against these times and the likes of David (and Sonny) Perdue, he will fare better, if not well.

  2. Well done, Jay Bookman. Well analyzed, with truth.

    I, too, respect Johnny Isakson’s innate decency and his civility as a politician and legislator. I, also, wish he had spoken out more when it had counted during the Trump presidency.

    No one is a perfect human being. I wish Johnny Isakson well in his retirement. He was an honorable public servant. He is a good man. That deserves respect.

  3. I rarely agreed with his positions particularly his support for the foolish Fair Tax fraud, and I’ve been voting as long as he’s been in state or federal office. He acquiesced to what was happening by not standing up for what you describe as his decency. For that, his legacy will be forever tainted. He was someone who might have made a difference particularly in the dark evolution of politics in Georgia where voter suppression is an art and increasingly blatant racism is the rule.

  4. Fair and very kind, Jay. And that also describes Isakson, who may not have had the good health and the stomach to stand up against the disaster that is Donald Trump and today’s GOP.


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