Class, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder — hard to define but we know it when we see it. I thought about that as two events occurred in our state last week featuring prominent Republicans.
In Atlanta, hundreds of friends and supporters gathered to honor a quiet man who epitomizes class, former U.S. Senator and lifelong Republican Johnny Isakson. The event raised nearly $1 million for the Isakson Initiative, a non-profit named for the senator who suffers from Parkinson’s. The new organization will be devoted to funding research on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. In attendance were most all of the state’s major political lights – Republicans and Democrats. This was beyond partisan politics.
Two days earlier, former President Donald Trump flew into the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry and continued his relentless barrage of insults on Gov. Brian Kemp, (“A total disaster on election integrity”); Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (“Terrible”) and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, (“A very strange guy”) – all of whom he blames for costing him his reelection.
There is no question Trump has created a deep schism in the Republican Party that Johnny Isakson helped to build. My mail over the past year has taken two forms. Many longtime conservative voters say they are tired of Trump’s hyperbole and personal insults and would not vote for him next time, assuming he runs. And then there are those who tell me they will sit out next year’s election rather than vote to reelect Brian Kemp. How this helps the Republican’s chances in Georgia in the 2022 election is beyond me.
Call Democrats whatever you choose – liberals, socialists, radicals – just don’t call them divided because they are not. Remember, Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 governor’s race to Brian Kemp by only 55,000 votes out of almost 4 million cast. That is just over 1%. Her case for 2022 hasn’t been hurt by Trump’s weird comments at Perry.
Referring to Kemp, Trump said of Abrams, “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me. Of course, having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth. Might very well be better.” That might very well happen, thanks to remarks like that.
Johnny Isakson was a Republican when you could fit the party in a phonebooth. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1976. At that time, there were four Republicans in the State Senate out of 56 members and 23 in the House along with 157 Democrats.
Isakson was named minority leader in 1983. He ran for governor against Democrat Zell Miller in 1990 and lost. In 1992, he was elected to the Georgia state senate and in 1996, the highly-partisan and education-oriented Miller appointed his former gubernatorial foe as head of the State School Board of Education. It was a stunner at the time.
Isakson remembers, “Georgia turned around. Scores got better, schools got better, people got better. Just because somebody is your opponent today doesn’t mean they can’t be your biggest friend tomorrow.”
The state’s interests first, party politics second?
Isakson succeeded Newt Gingrich as U.S. Rep. in Georgia’s 6th District after the volatile speaker flamed out in 1998 and resigned. Then it was two terms in the U.S. House and two terms and a partial third in the United States Senate until health issues caught up with him in 2019.
From his first day in politics until his last, Johnny Isakson was a highly effective legislator who could reach across the aisle and get things accomplished. And he did so without shooting off his mouth or compromising his convictions.
He was one of the few people in Washington to call out Trump on his disparagement of the late senator and former POW, John McCain. “It’s deplorable what he said,” Isakson remarked at the time. “ It will be deplorable seven months from now if he continues to say it and I will continue to speak out.” Trump never came back at Isakson. He knew better. That was one battle he was not going to win.
We will never see the likes of Johnny Isakson again and we are poorer for it. The Republican Party that he helped build into the majority party in Georgia is today rife with finger-pointing, insults, threats and headline-seeking showboats. As far as I am concerned, the whole crowd is just a bunch of RINOS. Johnny Isakson was and is the real deal.
Dick Yarbrough is an award-winning columnist from Georgia. He is a Southern philosopher, political pundit and straight-shooting humorist all rolled into one. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.