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Isakson and Cleland knew their voters, and their kids’ names

By Tom Baxter

The death of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a little more than a month after the death of former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, brings this political year to a somber close.

It’s tempting to say their passage marked the end of an era, but truthfully that era is already well behind us. If Parkinson’s disease had not forced Isakson to resign with two years left in his term, he would by now have faced the sternest test of his political career in the early days of January. He would have done the right thing. Just as certainly, he would have faced daunting challenges from inside and outside his party as next year’s elections approached.

Understandably, the stories following Isakson’s death are going to linger on his good relations with Democrats, that poignant final embrace with John Lewis, the many stories of his working across party lines to get things done. Not enough is going to be said about how essential Isakson was to the rise of the Republican Party in Georgia.

He was a rich guy with working-class roots, the son of a man who went from working on houses to selling them after World War II. He grew up in the business of selling people their dream homes. He could sound suburban in the suburbs, and down-homey down home, and never wavered from his focus on the sale, in his business or political career. All these were qualities the emerging Georgia Republican Party needed in the years when it struggled for a statewide breakthrough.

“I try to win the battle, not the body count,” Isakson told Georgia Trend when inducted into their hall of fame. Nothing substantiates those words better than Isakson’s long relationship with Zell Miller. Isakson lost the 1990 governor’s race to Miller in a campaign so bruising it might have embittered another politician. He won that battle when Miller tapped him to head the state school board, reviving his political career, and again years later when Isakson succeeded Miller in the Senate, with Miller’s tacit help.

Both Isakson and Cleland excelled at a style of personal politics that sadly appears to be passing with them. They knew your kids’ names and asked about them. They went to a lot of funerals. They had a generational knowledge of a lot of Georgia families.

There’s a conference room with a high wall at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas which has been festooned with plaques and mementos of every description, accumulated over years of lunch club speeches and local awards dinners by the late Kansas senator, who died last week. Isakson and Cleland were of a similar tradition.

It’s hard to practice this brand of politics when even shaking hands can be controversial. But voters need to meet the people they’re voting for face to face, and the best politicians thrive on those personal connections. Creating more opportunities for that to happen should be a big post-variant priority.

Dole and Sen. Herman Talmadge were a model of bipartisanship when they served together on the Senate Agriculture Committee, collaborating on a lot of important farm legislation. It’s good to see Senate passage of a bill addressing the opioid crisis in rural communities co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. And it’s encouraging that Democrats like U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada can work with Tennessee Republican senators Marsha Backburn and Bill Hagerty on a bill to help live music venues affected by the pandemic.

But the kind of unapologetically pragmatic bipartisanship Isakson called for in his farewell address to the Senate has been greatly marginalized since the days of Talmadge and Dole.

“Most people who call people names and point fingers are people that don’t have a solution themselves, they just want to make damn sure you don’t solve it,” Isakson said in his farewell. The list of solutions he crafted as chair of the Ethics and Veterans Affairs committees is impressive, and his work for the state of Georgia over decades — not only what he accomplished, but the patient, personable way in which he did it — leaves a true legacy.


Featured photo from JOHN BAZEMORE / AP, twitter.com

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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