This is a column I wish I didn’t have to write. It is about my friend, Johnny Isakson. You have seen, read and heard a lot about Georgia’s senior senator who passed away Dec. 19 after a long and courageous battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 76 years old.
Tributes have poured in from both Republicans and Democrats. To my knowledge, former President Donald Trump has not issued one of his tasteless statements about the passing of Johnny Isakson. That is a surprise given that the senator gave Trump a verbal butt-kicking for his incessant attacks on the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died of brain cancer in August 2018. Most Republicans don’t have the guts to take on Donald Trump. Johnny Isakson wasn’t most Republicans.
“It’s deplorable what he (Trump) said,” Isakson told an interviewer. “I just want to lay it on the line, that the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better. I don’t care if he’s president of United States, owns all the real estate in New York or is building the greatest immigration system in the world. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us.” That is what made Johnny Isakson who he was – a man of principle.
During the runup to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, Cobb County made international news with the passage of a so-called Family Values resolution which was a basically a declaration condemning the gay lifestyle.
I was the point man for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games trying to get the matter resolved. We had to make a decision either to spend the next year dealing with protests across the country – including the real chance that our Torch Relay would be targeted and continually harassed – or move a preliminary volleyball venue somewhere else.
Extremists ruled the day, including many of the churches in Cobb County. Given the over-the-top rhetoric from the Christian right, I thought them neither Christian nor right.
While most of the local politicians were telling us privately they supported our efforts, in public they blew with the political wind. Not Johnny Isakson. Then a state senator, he saw the damage the controversy was doing to the county’s image. He issued a strong statement calling the resolution a mistake. He went against the political grain and said what he believed.
When we couldn’t find a middle ground and decided to move the venue to Athens, House Speaker Newt Gingrich who represented Cobb County went ballistic and called it the “worst decision in history.” It was not long after that Gingrich flamed out and left the House to be replaced by – guess who? – Johnny Isakson. God does have a sense of humor.
In another of God’s coincidences, Johnny died one year to the day after the Woman Who Shared My Name. She loved him better than buttered bread, which was quite a compliment because she cared little about politics and even less about politicians. Johnny Isakson was the notable exception.
Her favorite story was about the day he called the house. She answered and they got into a lengthy conversation about a bunch of stuff having nothing to do with politics. As they finished up she said, “I guess you want to talk to Dick now.” His reply? “I didn’t call Dick. I called you.” End of conversation. I don’t know how many times she told that story, but it was a lot.
That fact that at Christmastime he plied her with poundcake he made from his grandmother’s recipe didn’t hurt, either.
I never took advantage of our friendship but in June 2017, I asked if he could meet 8-year-old great-grandson Cameron Charles Yarbrough and have their picture taken together. Just a quick in-and-out in his office, knowing how busy he was. He not only met Cameron, he took him out on the balcony at the Capitol and spent 45 minutes in conversation with him about Washington, our system of government and the U.S. Senate. What we did not know was that later that day, he was on the floor of the Senate getting a landmark piece of legislation passed, concerning the Veteran’s Administration.
There is so much more I would like to tell you about Johnny Isakson but suffice it to say, we will never see his likes again and we are poorer for it. The Republican Party that he helped build into the majority party in Georgia has turned into one of threats, insults and headline-seeking bozos. In my opinion, the whole crowd is nothing but a bunch of RINOS. Johnny Isakson was the real deal. A great statesman. I will miss him very much. May he rest in peace.
Dick Yarbrough is an award-winning columnist from Georgia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.