A plea for bipartisanship marked the end of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s 45-year political career Dec. 3 as he delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor.
Isakson, R-Georgia, who lives in east Cobb, is retiring at the end of the year due to his ongoing health issues.
In his official goodbye, Isakson, 74, urged all legislators to forget their differences and focus on common ground to find solutions for the country and its people.
“There’s something missing in this place. … America, we’ve got a problem, just like Apollo had,” Isakson told those gathered for his afternoon speech in Washington, which was broadcast live on the internet.
“Bipartisanship is a state of being, a state of mind,” he said. “We’ve got to stand up to the evils of society today because if we don’t do it, nobody will. The best country, the strongest country in the world cannot succumb to crushing itself inwardly.”
In highlighting his lengthy career in public service, both at a state and federal level, Isakson brought up his friendship with U.S. Rep John Lewis, D-Atlanta, as an example of the change that bipartisanship can bring if people let it.
“I never saw people get things done by not agreeing,” Isakson said. “You have to find common ground, give it a chance to work. You can’t pass a law or solve a problem otherwise.”
He recalled being “unwanted” when first elected into a majority Democratic Georgia House, at a time when legislators “couldn’t pass a kidney stone, much less anything else” for all the bickering.
Isakson spent 17 years in the Georgia Legislature before being elected to the U.S. House, and despite being labeled a “softie,” or worse, he said he always tried to do what he thought was right, even if that meant breaking party lines.
“Arguing about silly, stupid things from both parties is the first bipartisan thing I saw,” he said. “I never look at the party first, that’s the last thing I look at.”
Isakson said bipartisanship is not just a Democrat and a Republican talking to each other once in a while, but rather people with differences coming together to find a positive solution, regardless of what that takes.
He said America is changing “for lots of reasons,” and that the solutions are in people’s hearts.
Isakson, who has Parkinson’s disease, pledged to do whatever he can for the rest of his life to continue helping the people of Georgia and America.
Choking back tears, he declared his time in the U.S. Senate “the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done.”
“I’m not hampered yet, I’m pretty tough, but it’s getting close,” he said. “I’m not leaving you, I’m going to be with you a lot longer. I’ll be back to make this speech again sometime and give you a progress report. We need some progress.”
Isakson holds the distinction of being the only Georgian ever to have been elected to the Georgia House, Georgia Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate, his website biography states, adding that in 2016 he also became the first Georgia Republican ever to be elected to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
“On a day I’ve had more nice things said about me than I deserve, I’m the happiest guy I could ever be,” Isakson said during his speech. “Bipartisanship will become a way we accomplish things, a way we live, a state of being. It will be the end of a bad time and the beginning of a new one and I’m going to live long enough to see both.”
Isakson received a post-speech standing ovation as senators gathered around him to shake his hand, give him a hug and offer their support.
The luncheon in Isakson’s honor at the Senate on Tuesday was attended by around 100 people — a uniquely bipartisan show of support that was mentioned by some of the many senators who made official tributes to Isakson after his speech.
Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, led the tributes from both Democrats and Republicans, saying Isakson’s retirement is bittersweet.
“For those of us who know this man, this is tough to come to grips with,” Perdue said. “We’ll dearly miss him on many levels. I’ll miss his words of wisdom, his patience and most of all his example.”
Perdue said Isakson is living proof that things are achieved when legislators stop talking and listen.
“Not only do people listen to Johnny, when other people talk, Johnny Isakson listens, and that’s a rare commodity in this town, trust me,” he said. “America will always be in your debt.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, said he had little in common with Isakson on the surface, but over the years had found the Georgian’s friendship, companionship and mentoring priceless.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he told Isakson. “Johnny is the consummate legislator.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, remarked at Isakson’s “charm and heart” in declaring that “Georgia produces some fine people as well.”
“He brings a smile to each person he encounters when he walks the halls of the Senate,” Grassley said. “He will be greatly missed by everyone. No one can doubt his dedication to the people of Georgia and the United States, not to mention the country’s veterans.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said Isakson understands that politics is about people and that’s evident in every issue he tackles.
“He always knows the people behind the words of legislation,” she said. “He always understands how personal the work we do here is for our families back home.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, thanked Isakson for his “fortitude and courage.”
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of affection and genuine admiration as was experienced in this lunch,” Roberts said of the Senate luncheon in Isakson’s honor.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said Isakson reflects “the best of the Senate from both parties” and was the legislator he most looked up to.
“The Senate needs more people like Johnny Isakson,” he said. “I’ve even learned to like Georgian barbecue.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Isakson would win “hands down” in a Senate popularity contest.
“He’s beloved on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “He’s always sought common ground rather than partisan advantage.”
Collins said it was telling that Isakson did not use his farewell speech to list his numerous achievements, but rather to challenge legislators to do better.
“He challenged us to put aside the petty bickering that has prevented progress in America,” she said. “He called upon us to work together, he reminded us that we achieve the best legislation when we sit down and negotiate with one another and when we listen with respect to each other.”
Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to announce on Wednesday his appointment of businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to serve some of Isakson’s Senate term until a special election in 2020.
Isakson’s term ends at the start of 2023.