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The example left by Johnny Isakson and John Lewis

If a single moment embodies Johnny Isakson’s legacy, it came the day in 2019 after the late U.S. Representative John Lewis spoke in Isakson’s honor.

Lewis, the longtime Georgian Democrat, had spoken of his admiration and affection for Isakson, the longtime Georgian Republican, as Isakson prepared to retire from Congress after more than 20 years.

Lewis called his friend a “warm and welcome gentleman in the truest sense of the word”. And instead of waiting for the ailing Isakson to come shake his hand, Lewis walked across the aisle to the cavernous bedroom to hug the senator where he stood.

“I’ll come meet you, bro,” Lewis said.

The image of the two men, one white, one black, from different parties sharing an embrace was so at odds with the toxic partisanship we expect from Washington that it made headlines across the country.

Within a month, Lewis announced he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and Isakson had returned home to Georgia after Parkinson’s disease made labor impossible.

In the hours following Isakson’s death on Sunday, his longtime head of state, Joan Kirchner Carr, told me: ‘The loss of Johnny is the loss of true decency and civility – which are both dangerously rare today.”

She added that it wasn’t just that her boss got things done, “It was the way he got things done. Not by fighting and attacking, but by talking and listening and never giving up.

Isakson was known on Capitol Hill as someone who dropped by to visit other senators’ staff, not just the senators themselves. He was a regular at Wednesday morning bipartisan prayer breakfasts and made friends, real friends, from both sides of the aisle.

He called people “friends and future friends”.

“No one is an enemy, no one is a stranger,” Mitch McConnell said when Isakson retired. “There were only friends and future friends. That’s it.”

One of those friends was McConnell, of course. And Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. And Lewis. And Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

During a Senate tribute before Isakson’s retirement, Schumer called him, “One of the kindest, most caring senators I’ve known in my time here.”

At a time when partisanship and insults are rewarded in politics with fame and fortune, Isakson did the tedious work of making an argument, finding the votes and coming back, again and again, to find common ground. , even if the answer was no first. time.

The results were 57 bipartisan bills passed by Isakson’s VA committee to advance everything from veterans’ health care to education. He supported the 2006 Voting Rights Act and passed the Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act after reading an obituary of a young Georgian woman who was murdered while volunteering in Benin.

For as popular as he was, Isakson was also, to the end, a staunch Republican in the pre-Donald Trump sense of the term.

He called Senator McConnell “the greatest leader I have ever worked for.” Rather than walking away from his caucus during big votes, he was much more inclined to fend for himself to forge consensus on his own priorities.

His quiet work had an impact and his example left a path for others to follow.

In his final speech to the Senate, Isakson said he had just one message to leave behind from his 45 years of public service. It was a call to his colleagues to consider the challenge of bipartisanship.

He said he was genuinely alarmed by the direction he saw the country heading – towards partisanship and tribes and fixed positions on solvable issues.

“Find a way to find common ground,” he said. “When that doesn’t work out, find a way to be a future friend.”

And he spoke one last time about his friend Lewis, who was watching from the side of the Senate floor and whose words of praise the day before “meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about me.”

He described growing up in a segregated Georgia, like Lewis had grown up in a segregated Alabama, but how Lewis became “one of my heroes in life” through the work he did during the civil rights movement, both in Georgia and across the country. .

“John and I represent how things can change if people really want it.”

Isakson’s coiled body tensed to stand for the entire 30 minutes he spoke, and his breathing became labored at times. But he ended his career the way he started it, surrounded by friends from both parties, including Lewis.

Says Isakson: “I’m the happiest guy that could ever be.”

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