Johnny Isakson is preparing to be a former Senator, having also been a former member of the U.S. House, Georgia Senate, and Georgia House. As one of the founding fathers of the modern Georgia Republican Party, his career of public service spans 45 years. His retirement at the end of the year marks the end of an era, and though he wouldn’t say that directly, he knows it.
Isakson’s farewell speech to the Senate last week wasn’t about him nor his lengthy record of accomplishments. Instead, it part chiding and part pleading of his peers to seek common ground and civility and solve actual problems facing the country.
The Isakson era of politics began when Democrats were the party of Kennedy and Republicans were ascending to the party of Reagan. One was still asking “ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country.” The other had a movement conservative President elected who invited an unapologetically liberal speaker down to the White House for beer where they negotiated compromises while implementing the “Reagan Revolution.”
Like Reagan, Isakson’s core is firmly rooted in conservatism. Also like Reagan, his actions have been pragmatic to get as much of his beliefs enacted while solving problems and moving to the next one. Rather than participating in back-bench bomb throwing to generate headlines, Isakson took a much harder path of bipartisan diplomacy to get things done.
I had the pleasure of having a private lunch with him in Washington about five years ago. I was sitting with my back to the room when his face lit up as someone behind me entered. He beamed “One of my best friends just walked in and I want to introduce you.” As I turned around I was quite surprised and even a bit confused to be face to face with California Senator Barbara Boxer.
I was later talking to a member of his staff who asked about our lunch and I had to ask the question, as it was clear from the brief interaction that the two were actually close friends. The answer helped me understand more about Isakson’s legislative career than any other anecdote.
I was told simply that Isakson was the person that Republican Senators trusted to forge deals with Democrats on legislation that often didn’t make headlines but were needed. Boxer had the same reputation with the Democratic caucus. Thus, when leadership determined that a bill needed to “get done,” they would often hand it over to Isakson and Boxer to do the thankless task of working out the details in a way that would be acceptable to the members of each respective party.
That level of trust shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, as each was selected to lead their party on the Senate Ethics Committee. A Senator that is trusted to guide the judgment process of his or her peers is also one that will be trusted with language of a bill that will ultimately get a “yes” vote.
And thus, while many Senators focused on public pontifications regarding bills that would never become law, Isakson spent his Senate career doing the quiet but effective job of legislating.
During that same lunch I asked him, bluntly, why he was still doing this.He didn’t need it, politics was becoming a thankless proposition, and his health had just begun to turn. He was quick and direct in his response. “There’s still a deal to be had up here, and most of my peers say it can’t get done. If I don’t try, it might not get done.”
Isakson noted at the beginning of his speech that while he’s not at the point yet where he physically can’t do the job, he’s getting close. And throughout the rest of his speech – and his pleas to solve problems – I could hear those words from our lunch ringing loudly.
His speech wasn’t about him. It was a direct charge to his fellow Senators to step up and fill the void, to reach across the aisle and get things done. It was a charge to see members of the minority party not as those that have been conquered, but those that represent fellow Americans with different viewpoints.
Near the closing, Isakson offered “I’m not leaving you….I’ll be back to make this speech again sometime, and give you a progress report. We need some progress.” “Progress” on Isakson’s terms isn’t measured in volume of bills passed or laws created, but in problems solved.
The political era of Johnny Isakson is closing. His speech, and his charge to his peers and to us, is that for the American era to continue, we need more common ground. America needs some progress.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of, and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy solutions in the areas of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.