In farewell to Senate, Johnny Isakson stands for bipartisanship

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is a gentleman who speaks kindly about everyone, a dedicated negotiator who seeks common ground with political opponents, and a proud Georgian who loves his barbecue, said colleagues who honored him during a daylong celebration.

But most of all, they said, the retiring senator is a model of what a senator should be: someone who takes the job seriously and puts getting things done above party or politics.

“Johnny doesn’t talk a lot, he doesn’t speak loudly, but when he talks people listen here,” Georgia’s other U.S. senator, David Perdue, said. “It’s a high honor to be his junior senator.”

Isakson, 74, is stepping down at the end of the year due to his failing health. But Tuesday was set aside as the day for him to give his farewell speech and be celebrated by colleagues, staff and family. He joked that it felt like his last day — or his funeral — but he enjoyed the attention and kind words.

Barbecue served on red and white checkerboard tablecloths was a fitting menu for the members-only luncheon in Isakson’s honor.

Normally on Tuesdays, senators divide by party affiliation and dine separately. But Isakson started a tradition years ago of inviting members of both parties to an annual barbecue, so nearly every member of the chamber, plus Vice President Mike Pence, showed up to dine with him one last time.

“I hope we can build on that wave of bipartisanship coming out of that lunch to finish up the year-end agenda,” said Majority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota. “And there are a number of things on the agenda that is going to require cooperation from the Democrats.”

Congress needs to approve a spending plan by Dec. 20 to avoid a government shutdown, and a North American trade deal is also pending among dozens of bills caught between the Republican-led Senate and the House that is controlled by Democrats.

Isakson often uses a wheelchair to get around, but on Tuesday he leaned on a walker and entered the Senate chamber on his own two feet. The theme of his farewell speech was, naturally, bipartisanship.

“Bipartisan doesn’t mean a Democrat and a Republican talk to each other every once in a while; it means that two people come together, probably have differences — probably have a lot of differences — but they find a way to get to the end of the trial where there is a possibility of a solution,” he said.

Isakson had invited his friend and colleague Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis to sit with staff on the Senate floor. He dedicated a portion of his speech to honoring Lewis' legacy as a civil rights leader and reminding the audience that they had worked together for 20 years despite their party affiliations.

The senator encouraged his colleagues to seek out opportunities to work across the aisle and ignore the voices of those who encourage a party-first approach.

“When you are fortunate enough to see a John Lewis from Georgia or someone like that step out of his comfort zone and do what he thinks is right,” Isakson said, “if somebody tell tells you he is wrong, don’t do that. Judge your conscience and your heart, not some TV commentators or someone who is filled with hate.”

He mentioned the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 as an example of racist rhetoric that diminishes America. Those things need to be called out when they occur, he said.

“We’re better than the hate and vile statements that some people make, and we’ve got to be better than that,” Isakson said.

For more than two hours afterward, senators lined up one by one to wish Isakson well. Not only did they talk about their friendship and his calm demeanor, but they mentioned his ability to pass legislation that had impact.

More than one brought up the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, which required new safety protections for volunteers and established a sexual assault policy. The law is named after a Peace Corps volunteer from Georgia who was killed after reporting a local volunteer was molesting girls in the Benin village where she worked, and Isakson took a personal interest in the case.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a story about Isakson pressing for changes to a pension bill to protect the interests of one of Georgia's biggest employers: Delta Air Lines. When an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter asked Isakson how he celebrated his victory, he said he went home and drank a gin and tonic while doing his laundry.

“This anecdote is almost the perfect encapsulation of Senator Isakson,” McConnell said. “It starts with tenacity and a can-do spirit, it’s propelled forward by charisma, smarts and stubborn patience, and it ends with a win for Georgians and one celebratory cocktail while wrist-deep in laundry detergent.”

Read more | 'Two icons from Georgia' embrace during moving tribute to Sen. Isakson