Dick Yarbrough: Reflecting on the legacy of Sen. Johnny Isakson
I usually refrain from commenting on the topic de jour in the media. I’m not much of a “bandwagon” person. Let everyone else have their say and when the dust has settled, I will have mine. Otherwise, you risk being lost in the noise.
Today is an exception. That is because my subject is exceptional. I am speaking of Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, Johnny Isakson, who has announced he will resign his position Dec. 31.
This good man has decided it is time to end a singular political career due to a number of health issues including, most notably, an ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease as well as suffering four broken ribs in a fall last month at his Washington apartment, and surgery to remove a malignant growth on his kidney.
He leaves at the top of his game. Few people are more respected or influential in Washington than Johnny Isakson. It has been interesting to see the tributes pour in from both Republicans and Democrats alike. To borrow a phrase from the campaign of the late Gov. George Busbee, Johnny Isakson is “a workhorse, not a show horse.” Leave the preening to the empty suits craving media attention.
But don’t let that laid-back demeanor fool you. He is not afraid to do what he thinks is right rather than the politically expedient thing. In 1994, I was serving as a managing director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The Cobb County Commission passed a “Family Values” resolution which was, in fact, a thinly veiled, anti-gay statement. The county was scheduled to host a preliminary volleyball venue during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games and it fell to my lot to try and effect a compromise.
Gay rights groups wanted the venue moved. The Christian Right did not. The committee’s decision was more sanguine: How much time and effort was a preliminary volleyball venue worth on our time-constricted plate? Not much.
That didn’t stop it from being a worldwide controversy. U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented Cobb, was firing at us on all cylinders. Gays were threatening to disrupt the Torch Relay across the country. I was going to meetings in the county with a bodyguard.
At the height of the controversy, Johnny Isakson, then a state senator, publicly called the resolution a mistake and urged that it be rescinded. That took guts and could have been political suicide but, irony of ironies, when Newt Gingrich retired, Isakson replaced him in the U.S. House, proving that God has a sense of humor.
Since he has been in the Senate, Johnny Isakson has called out Donald Trump for a couple of tasteless tweets. When Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “s—hole countries” in an immigration reform meeting, Isakson said, “He owes the people of Haiti and all of mankind an apology That is not the kind of statement the leader of the free world should make and he ought to be ashamed of himself.”
When Trump took a verbal shot at the late Sen. John McCain following the Arizona senator’s funeral service, Isakson said the president’s continued slights against the man and his Vietnam War service were “deplorable.”
“It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again,” Isakson told an Atlanta reporter, “and I will continue to speak out, because there’s one thing we’ve got to do — you may not like immigration, you may not like this, you may not like that, you may be a Republican, you may be a Democrat, but we’re all Americans.” Amen.
I notice that Trump didn’t take on Isakson after the scoldings. That’s a good thing. The Woman Who Shares My Name isn’t crazy about politics and those who practice it, but she loves Johnny Isakson better than Scottish shortbread, and even the president of the whole U.S. of A. had better mind his smart mouth about her friend. They are big buddies.
Like the time he called her from Washington to chat. As they finished, she said, “I guess you want to talk to Dick.” The senator said, “I didn’t call Dick. I called you.” (He probably thought I was too busy to talk. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.)
It now falls to the lot of Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, but the truth is that Johnny Isakson cannot be replaced. He is one of a kind. He will be missed.