EDITOR’S NOTE — On the day after announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson sat down with the Marietta Daily Journal for a wide-ranging interview covering past, present and future politics. Publisher Otis Brumby III, Columnist Dick Yarbrough and VP of Content J.K. Murphy spent nearly an hour with the senator in his Cumberland offices to discuss his 45-year political career. Isakson, who will leave the Senate on Dec. 31, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and recently underwent surgery to remove a growth on his kidney. The question-and-answer interview was edited for length and context.
Q: Tell us about how you came to the decision to retire, with whom you talked, who gave you advice? Was it made quickly or has this been ruminating for awhile?
A: I listened to God a lot over the last six months because I’ve had a lot to think about that had nothing to do with being in the Senate, just dealing with what I’m dealing with. I talked to Heath (Garrett, political consultant) and I talked to Joan (Kirchner-Carr, chief of staff) and I talked to Chris (Carr, Georgia attorney general and Isakson’s former chief of staff) and I talked to Trey (Kilpatrick, deputy chief of staff). ... That’s almost the extent of it, maybe a couple of other people.
The reason nobody knew about it until yesterday (Wednesday) is we didn’t talk to anybody. I said, you know, one thing I’m gonna do is if I’m going to do this, I’m gonna do it my way. Frank Sinatra’s still favorite. And that’s my favorite song. So that’s the way I ran my political career and that’s the way I’m going to go out.
... We’re going to go out in style and then I’m going to be around ... for a long, long time so you don’t have to worry about that. I’ll be a little bit freer to say what I think.
Q: You’ve got four months remaining before you retire. What do you hope to accomplish? You said you’re going to charge hard — what do you have on your agenda?
A: There’s 740,000 veterans in Georgia and there are millions in the United States and I’m the chairman of that committee and I’ve done a lot on veterans health care. And there are a lot of veterans that we’ve been working on their cases that were not worked on in the past and I’ve got a lot of those that are pending and I’m working on every one of those. Make sure the right amount of money flows through as it’s supposed to, make sure the disaster money in rural Georgia gets out ... as quickly as possible because that ... is everything to agriculture.
I’m going to say thank you to the thousands of people that have made my life so memorable ... And I want to spend some time with my buddies in the Senate. I’ve got a lot of buddies in the Senate — Republicans and Democrats — that are just good friends. I’m wanting to spend a lot of time with them and they’ve been great to me on the phone the last two days ...
I’m not going to be bored at all and y’all aren’t going to be bored at all. I may surprise you with some of the things I do before it’s all over.
Q: And then what about January when you are out of office? How are you going to engage yourself, how are you going to get involved?
A: I’m going to obey the law. You know, you’re very restricted as a former United States senator ... There are ethics rules on what you can and can’t do. I can’t talk about it or talk to anybody about it until January has come and gone. That’s the only question I’m going to tell you I can’t answer because I can’t without breaking the law and I’m not.
Q: How do you feel about the reaction since you made your announcement?
A: Just unbelievable to me. I mean I just heard from Sam Nunn (Democrat who served as U.S. senator from Georgia from 1972 – 1997) this morning. That means about as much as anything to me. I was the first Sam Nunn volunteer in 1972 when he was running to be a United States senator at the Holiday Inn Marietta on 41 in a room with 200 chairs and there were three people there: me, Sam Nunn and his campaign manager. Nobody else showed up. And we got to be friends and have been friends ever since. And of course I wasn’t a Democrat, I was a Republican and have been ever since. I’m proud of it, but also respect good people who do a good job. And he was a great one. So I’ve, you know, patterned a lot of things I’ve tried to do after the way he ran his Senate office and I appreciate his friendship and what he’s taught me.
I’ve got lots of people like that I can mention. I’ve heard from Bob Kerrey, who was a (Democratic) senator from Nebraska who many years ago lost a leg in Vietnam (in 1969). He thanked me for what I did to turn the VA (Veterans Administration) around. He gets VA health care now and said it was hard to get services and now it’s not.
Vice President (Mike Pence) called me at 11:30 last night from Air Force Two. ... Henry Holley, who was Billy Graham’s chief guy when he first started crusades ... So I’ve heard from all kinds of folks ...
Q: No one other than you has served in the Georgia House and Senate, the U.S. Congress and Senate and been the chairman of the State School Board.
A: We had our page research that and we couldn’t find anybody that’s done it. So I guess I have.
Q: You started to reflect a little bit on some of your top accomplishments. What are you most proud of at any level?
A: I’m always proud when I finish the job that I started … I’m very proud of what I’ve done in this last couple of years in particular. Because I did it because I love the job and love the people. So I’m happy with everything in my life. I’ve got a great wife, I’ve got a great family, I’ve got a great staff and I don’t have anything to complain about and I’m just a really happy guy.
And you’ll think I’m gilding the lily here, but my favorite days were with (Otis Brumby Jr., the late owner and publisher of Marietta Daily Journal). I learned more about life from Otis Brumby — the easy way and the hard way. I was his friend, but boy, he chewed my rear-end out more than one time. And he kept all of us on the straight and narrow and it was a real treasure to be a friend of his.
Q: Who are your role models? You mentioned Sam Nunn. Who else do you pattern your life and career after?
A: Well, so many people had an influence on me. I hate to name one or two and have them think they’re the only people that did because, you know, at one time or another, some people you’d never believe would have had a big influence did so on me. I’ve done a lot of work with a lot of folks that I really treasure and appreciate. A lot of them are Democrats, some of them are Baptist, some are Methodist and some are white and some are black. I just like good people. And I’ve been fortunate to know a lot of them.
Q: One of the most extraordinary things is when you ran against a partisan Zell Miller for governor. At that time Zell had no truck with Republicans and then he put you as chair of the school board, which was his passion. Were you surprised?
A: I thought it was a trick. I’ll be honest ... my secretary came in the office in the morning and said the governor was on the phone, wants to talk to you. I said, “Governor, who?” And he said, “Governor Miller.” So I picked up the phone and said, “Yes sir, what can I do for you?” He said, “Listen, Johnny, I fired the whole state school board last night. I’ve been having trouble with (Superintendent Linda) Schrenko. I thought about it and I want you to take over the school board for me to be the chairman and fix it.” And that’s exactly how he said it. I said, “This must be a trick.”
(Isakson took the weekend to think it over.)
So Monday morning I got to the office, I called him up at eight o’clock ... he’d given me his back number and he said, “Johnny, what you got for me? ... if you’re going to tell me no, you just don’t start ... I want you to do this and I mean it sincerely. I will not take no for an answer.” And so I said, okay, I’ll do it. And he said, fine, come on over here to the mansion. ... And we sat in his office at the mansion on the first floor just to the right when you go in the front door of the library and called the other 10 people to appoint to the board and ask them if they would agree.
(Isakson continued talking about his career).
The next thing I know, Newt (Gingrich) resigns. And next thing I know I’m running for his seat. And next thing I know, Zell retires and I’m running for his seat. So I kind of replaced the two guys who had been in my way before ... and then finished my career there. But it’s been a great relationship. I did not know Zell well, even though I’d been in the Legislature when he was lieutenant governor. But I got to know him up close and personal in that race. He taught me a lot of good lessons and I think he came to enjoy being with me even though we were in a terrible, tough fight ... that was pretty damn close. In the meantime, we got to be good friends ... he died one of my best friends and I still miss him to this day.
Q: It’s been said that you were a Republican before it was cool to be a Republican. Why did you become a Republican?
A: It’s not a complicated answer. I was 28 or 29 years old when I ran first for the Cobb County commission. That was my first race about 50 years ago. And I knew I’d have to run as something. And I looked at the landscape and Richard Nixon was president ... he’d had his difficulties. George McGovern was his opponent that had his difficulties. I said, you know, I’m more of a fiscal conservative than I am a liberal so I’m going to run as a Republican. I thought you should run for what you believed. And I did. And Nixon resigned and all kinds of things. It was no good decision to make party-wise but I made it for that reason, which was the right reason. And everybody else was a Democrat. I was the second Republican to be elected Republican in Cobb County. And I was the only Republican that beat any Democrat in 1976 when President Carter swept the state. That was forgotten by a lot of people, but everybody that lost that year was a Republican and everybody that won was a Democrat — except me.
I ran 18 times and won 15 ... and that’s a pretty good batting average in baseball and I’ll take it any day. I tell young people when they come to ask what’s the secret to what you do? I said the secret is I ran 18 times but I lost three. I lost my first one. And that’s the one that made me a good candidate. ... You learn humility ...
Q: What would you tell young people about getting into politics?
A: It’s been the best thing I could’ve ever done in my life, because I wanted to do it. If you watch TV today and cable television and read, it has become a totally different environment than it was in 1974 when I first ran. There are a lot of people who aren’t running who should be. Notwithstanding cable television, notwithstanding blogs, notwithstanding the fact that you can get 15 million listeners on radio and not be held accountable for what’s going on right now. But in the end, truth matters. And in the end, people want to vote for somebody they believe in rather than somebody that’s a big talker ... So it’s more important now than ever that good people run for office and I never would try to turn anybody away from running. It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s got many, many, many rewarding parts to it, but it’s also got a lot of painful ones.
But if we lose the American citizens participating in our system and they think somebody else ought to do it, one day somebody else will. And they won’t be a person that believes in democracy or freedom or individual worth or entrepreneurship or free enterprise or anything. There’ll be somebody that speaks a foreign language and wants you to send them your money and shut up. And I don’t want to live in that kind of country. To this day, I’m a loyal American patriot and I will be as long as I can. I’ll do what I can in any way I can to protect this country. I don’t like some of the things that we’ve done, but we’re the best place on earth to be and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
Q: You’ve been described as governing from the center, not the extremes. Mitch McConnell said your demeanor is quite different from what most people expect from a politician. Do you agree with that? Has that been your philosophy?
A: My philosophy to myself personally is to be comfortable with what I’m doing. ... I guess I don’t try to be different. I just try to be me. I’m like everybody else. I like baseball. I like Marietta, Georgia. I like the Square. I’m a regular old person. I think that’s what the people want, a regular old person.
Q: How does a politician like Johnny Isakson fit in today? Things are so polarized.
A: You say what you think, understanding that it may run contrary to the polarization, but it’s the right thing to do. I mean, when I took the president on when he said what he did about John McCain and he talked about ... s---holes in Haiti. He was the president, but what he said was wrong. It was wrong to trash John McCain at the time of his death. It was wrong to not talk in some decent way about the people of Haiti who had been destroyed by hurricane. It was not right to give anybody in Charlottesville, Virginia, the thought that the people causing that problem had any place in standings. I spoke out in all three of those issues and would do it again. Because that’s right. It’s the right thing. I’ve done that in Cobb County. As the best example, when I took on Bill Byrne and the Cobb County commission over the resolution against gay people and during the Olympics in 1996, that was not something I did because I wanted publicity. That’s something I did because I thought it was right. And I’ll do that again when something comes up and it’s just wrong.
Q: Gov. Brian Kemp’s going to name a successor for 2020. Have you talked with the governor about that? Will you offer advice for replacement? Do you have any names?
A: If I’m asked I’ll tell him what I think, but it’s his job, so I need to be asked. Brian’s a good friend of mine. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve been friends with his wife’s dad longer than him, longer than Brian. So I’ve known them all a long time. I say you call me and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking when you have a question. But it’s your decision to make. I made a lot of decisions over the last 45 years. I’m enjoying not having to make one right now. Right? The last one I made (retirement) was pretty tough, so I’m going to wear it out for a while.
Q: You’ve amassed a 45-year political career, and we touched on this earlier, but what stands out to you as your greatest accomplishments? On three levels — for you personally, for the state of Georgia and for the nation.
A: Well, for me personally, the only thing I would point out is that... looking back over to 1974, of all the challenges I had, and opponents I had and issue differences I had, I’m still standing. Some of my best friends had been some of my enemies before. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for — for anything that I did or said. So that’s what I’m thankful for. And I just appreciate that very much and appreciate the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and glad that I’m still surviving.
For the state of Georgia. Well, you know, that’s tough for me to say because fortunately there are a lot of them that I worked on. Some that are not very newsworthy or newsy but they’re important.
But there’s no question that when I saved Delta’s pension fund ... four minutes before midnight on August 4th of 2005, that was probably the most impactful thing I ever did. Delta was going bankrupt, going into a structured bankruptcy and we saved every pension for every employee in the state — whether a baggage handler or a teller or a stewardess or anything, not the pilots, but everybody else. They’re now the biggest airline in the world and have 35,000 retired employees on pensions they would’ve lost. That meant a lot to me. ... the president of Delta was in the gallery when I did it, not because he was a plant, but because his company was on the line and we won with only four dissenting votes. That’s the hardest I ever worked on anything because we had no time.
Kate Puzey, the Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered in Benin (city in Nigeria). I saw an article in the (Atlanta) Journal Constitution on the Sunday after she had been killed. I did not know her. I said, gosh, I’m her congressman. So I went to the family funeral and I sat at the back of the church, didn’t know the family, but I just felt like I ought to be there. And when it was over, one of the family members came up to me and asked me who I was. I told them, they said, I thought that was you.
I said, well, here’s my card. If they ever need help, call me. And two weeks later they did. And I helped them get some things from Benin and one thing out of Ghana back to the family and we sat down and had some coffee and cried a little bit over their loss. It was a terrible loss for them. This girl was number one in her class at UVA, number one in her class at Forsyth County High School. She was a superstar and was brutally murdered as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then we passed The Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which is now known as the Kate Puzey Act. There’ve been a number of women who were sexually abused and now have found retribution or found justice because of that law. And it’s preventing a lot of problems in the future that happened in those countries. So that was meaningful for me to do.
I’m working on the port of Savannah, the work I’ve done in metro Atlanta for transportation, which I was on the transportation committee in the House, but in the Senate I’ve had a lot of opportunities on transportation with the port and with Hartsfield(-Jackson airport) to work on.
So we did some things on that and we did some things on funding and education. Like the 1% local option sales tax for school construction that built, I think, $6 billion in classrooms now in Georgia with no bond debt. That’s a pretty good thing, you pay sales tax for cash for your bricks and mortar and that’s a pretty good deal.
Q: How about your work on nuclear power facility Plant Vogtle?
A: Well, that’s my legacy. Just look up Senate Bill 29 somewhere in the annals of history and you will find out all you ever need to know about playing football. Tom Allgood was the Democratic majority leader in the Senate. Roy Barnes was his aide, his deputy, and I was the only person that the Speaker could get to take that bill to the floor. He let me do it because he thought I was expendable ‘cause I was Republican. He knew anybody that did it was going to get killed. And I got down there, we won 93 to 87, as close as you can get, because it’s a 90-90 split in the House. Passed it in the House, but the Senate rejected it.
We got a conference committee agreement. I still remember the motion to this day. I said, Mr. Speaker, I want to move (to pass) the House-bill passed amendment to Senate Bill 29. ... And it passed again by one vote. We got on building what’s now the last nuclear reactor in America. When they turn that booger on next year, it’s going to be the last one that’ll be built ... it’s going to be finished pretty soon. Not easily, but it’s going to be finished. That was fun, too.
Q: I think most people know about your public life, but professionally, Northside Realty had $1.4 billion in annual sales and over 1,000 agents and 30 offices.
A: I get too much credit for a lot of things. That’s one of them. We had a great company. It was built and founded by my father and Howard Chatham actually owned it. I got the chance to work there and we did pretty good after I got there. But I took something that was already operating and things changed as IBM moved this way and other people started transferring ... east Cobb became the place to go. I was a 25 to 35 year old salesman who was looking to get my kids educated and a few more years in college and started selling houses and had a wife, and a lot of expenses with my habits, which were politics.
I was really fortunate. We sold a lot of houses and a lot of people still live in them and a lot of them voted for me. It gave me a chance to learn how to take rejection without feeling like I was being rejected.
Q: What about the University of Georgia? Are you going to do anything there?
A: I’m a Dawg until the day is over. God’s blessed me in many ways and UGA is one of them. And I got a lot of friends over there and I love Georgia football. And just so we know, I know they don’t need me on the team, that’s for sure. I can’t fit into the same clothes as those people. They’re the biggest I’ve ever seen. I played high school football, 165 pounds. One leg of those guys today weighs 165 pounds.
But I can’t tell you (about future plans). First of all, when you retire from the Senate … there’s a prohibition against any negotiation or talking about anything that you’re going to do for a year.
I have thought about (what is next), but only to the extent I’m going to do something. I don’t know what it’s going to be. And it may be working at the kitchen at MUST (Ministries), I don’t know, but I’ll do something hopefully valuable ... And I’ll enjoy doing that.
Q: What do you do for fun?
But, I’ve got grandchildren ... I love them. I love Georgia football. I’m not a big reader, but I’m pretty avid watcher of news on television … the other night, there was a show on World War II, which was just fantastic. It was a four-hour deal and I watched the whole thing beginning to end. It kind of took my mind off things, plus educated me on some stuff. I’d been back for the D-Day celebration in Normandy, which piqued my interest in a lot of that. But I missed a lot of other things. I can’t play golf anymore. I can’t drive anymore and I can’t drink liquor anymore. So I don’t have any fun things to do.
When you get something like Parkinson’s you have to watch what you eat, and what you do and get plenty of rest. So since I can’t drive anymore, I bum rides from everybody and can’t have any libations anymore. ... I’m not doing a lot of things I didn’t need to be doing in the first place.
Q: The spot on your kidney, is there any more treatment for that?
A: No. I have a checkup every 90 days. (Wellstar) Kennestone (Hospital) has some great people, great surgeons. They got a great one from the Cleveland Clinic who did my surgery ...
I don’t have to take any medicine ... don’t even have to have any radiation, but I have to get an MRI every three months.
Dr. Williams at Kennestone took (the tumor) out Monday. I came home that night and laid down, rested, and got up the next morning and went to work and I’m doing fine. It didn’t hurt. ... Never took a Tylenol. I’ve done back surgery and kidney surgery without taking any time off. I won’t take those opioids.
Q: How do you feel about leaving politics after 45 years?
A: I’m not leaving yet. The car is here, but I haven’t gotten in. Yeah. I’m really at peace with all of it. ... It’s getting tougher and tougher and I’m not as mobile as I was. ... but I have not had any problem with cognitive stuff or anything like that. My balance is just not good and my endurance is not good. I knew what was going on inside of me and I knew what I could and couldn’t do ...
Look, I did everything I could as long as I could to stay where I was. I’ve been to 34 physical therapy sessions in August. I’ve done all that stuff and I’ll continue to do it ‘cause I’m going to be a hard-charging son-of-a-gun from now on. What I’d rather do is leave at the top and do the right thing for the right reason and do a good job rather than having everybody feel sorry for me some time. I’m going to be somewhere else when that happens.