Few political observers can remember when Johnny Isakson was not a fixture in Georgia politics. As statewide politics enters a new era, it’s a good time to recognize a great man now in retirement. When he burst on to the scene in 1974 as a GOP candidate for a county commission seat in east Cobb County, few predicted he would be giving his farewell speech 45 years later on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Isakson lost that first race and a couple campaigns years later, but he never gave up. He also never blamed his party or the media for #FakeNews even as his family was attacked and his conservative credentials were questioned. Isakson is and always will be a gentleman first and a leader ever after.
Leaders who persevere are the very best of the lot. Leaders who lose and get back up to win despite the sacrifice know that suffering gives one perspective and compassion for the plight of others. That is the Johnny Isakson who rose through the ranks of the Republican Party to become its standard bearer for governor (unsuccessful in 1990) and U.S. senator (unsuccessful and then successful) three times over– a record for the GOP in Georgia.
No one will ever replicate Isakson’s trajectory again. The battlefield for politics has changed from hand-to-hand combat to micro targeting of hand-held devices. Isakson embraced every new technology for 45 years to stay close to his constituents and remained a favorite of the media in his home state.
Isakson has been a quiet friend and helpful mentor to legions of Georgia politicos. He even became friends with the men who defeated him at the ballot box in the time-honored traditions of days gone by. Then-Gov. Zell Miller appointed Isakson to be chairman of the state Board of Education because he was the best man for the job. It was that knack for finding common ground that gave Isakson a boost as soon as he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2004. He never let political capital go stale once he took the seat that could have been his as far back as 1992. He never expressed regret over losses because he was too focused on what he wanted to accomplish once he had the opportunity.
What were Isakson’s greatest accomplishments? Support for Georgia’s ports, saving Delta Air Lines, creating innovative solutions for public education and reinventing health care for our faithful veterans would all be on a list any observer should make. However, it is my view that his real legacy is the example to countless platoon commanders he leaves on the field after his time as their general. We all develop habits based on what we observe to be effective.
No one is a better example of how to be a servant leader than Johnny Isakson. He is conservative, compassionate and kind. Once when introducing him at an event, I succinctly described him thusly: “He is the man we all want our sons to grow up to be.” He still is— and we hope our daughters will follow his example as well. Thank you, Johnny, for just being good.
Jay Morgan is principal of the Atlanta-based JL Morgan Company and was a senior strategist in each of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate.