A Jan. 6 memorial reminds us that 'Johnny Isaksons just don't come along every day'
Friends, family and former colleagues gathered to remember the life and legacy of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson Thursday. GPB's Stephen Fowler reports.
One year after an attack on democracy at the U.S. Capitol, a bipartisan group of friends, family and former colleagues remembered the long, impactful life of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson on Thursday.
The pews of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta were full of people who had a story about Isakson, who died just before his 77th birthday in December after largely retiring from the public eye, battling Parkinson's disease and other health issues.
Isakson was a Republican when being a Republican wasn't common in Georgia, and grew to become a uniquely beloved figure by both parties. The only person to serve in the Georgia state House and Senate, plus the U.S. House and Senate, Isakson embodied a type of people-focused bipartisan politics over four decades that just isn't present much anymore.
"I never worry about what I'm doing politically or practically in the Senate as long as I think I'm doing what's right," he told GPB's Political Rewind in 2019. "Hopefully my epitaph will say ... that he always worked for the best interests of people. As long as that's the case, I'm happy."
For more than 90 minutes on Jan. 6, 2022, his children talked of a caring father, colleagues talked of a genuine friend and hard worker, and the audience was reminded of how giant a hole Isakson will leave behind.
"There's an old saying that if you know who you are, then you'll know what to do," Peachtree Road United Methodist Church senior minister Bill Britt said. "And without question, Johnny Isakson was a man of faith, a man of hope, a man of great compassion for others. He knew who he was, and he knew what to do. What he did is live an extraordinary life."
Setting the theme for the memorial, Britt said that "Johnny Isaksons just don't come along every day."
Isakson was a lifelong conservative, and his voting record reflected it. But he was a rare breed of politicians who was truly willing to work across the aisle to accomplish things for the greater good. On the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection in which a pro-Trump mob tried to stop the Electoral College process, in a way the Isakson memorial also served as a memorial for decency in politics in a bitterly polarized era.
Around two dozen U.S. senators flocked to the memorial to pay tribute to their friend and colleague, as did Georgia political leaders such as Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Attorney General Chris Carr, a former top aide and close family friend.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Isakson's savvy legislating and "cunning" dealmaking, noting that his achievements did not come in spite of his "quiet virtues," but because of them.
"Now we all know this is a polarized time; unity is in short supply," McConnell said. "But the gigantic and diverse Johnny Isakson fan club has never failed to pack a room. Johnny Isakson told the truth, he played by the rules, he treated everybody with respect and unfailing kindness: a gentleman in the literal sense, a gentle man."
Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss met Isakson at the University of Georgia (noting Isakson would certainly be in heaven watching UGA play in the college football national championship on Monday) and walked through Isakson's long, storied career in politics.
"He particularly loved to vote for a bipartisan bill and authored an awful lot of bipartisan legislation," he said. "He was very proud to work with Republicans and Democrats on a regular basis. His longtime good friend former Gov. Roy Barnes has oft said of Johnny
that 'If all Republicans were like Johnny Isakson, I would be a Republican.'"
But there are not many like Johnny Isakson in today's politics, a similar feeling that was shared when Isakson's friend Democratic Rep. John Lewis died in 2020.
Their bond, and their impact on better political discourse, can be summed up in an iconic moment when Lewis spoke at Isakson's farewell to the Senate in 2019.
"The senator does not make a lot of noise, but he has the ability and the capacity to speak power," Lewis said. "He did not just talk the talk, he literally walked the walk."