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

August 29, 2019 8:17 am

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.

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Jay Bookman
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.