Last Wednesday, Sen. Johnny Isakson announced that he is suffering from Parkinson's disease. He simultaneously released a statement from his doctor, and a detailed Q&A about the illness and his specific condition and prognosis. He made it clear that he intends to win re-election next fall and remain Georgia's senior senator. I believe him, and continue to fully support him.
To be blunt, questions about Isakson's health have followed him throughout his second term, as he suffered from a blood clot and a serious bacterial infection during his 2010 campaign. Some have been asking those questions out of genuine concern. Others, candidly, appear to have been motivated by not so thinly veiled political ambition.
My answer to those who have asked about his condition and whether he's "really" running for re-election have been the same for years. He is, as long as he says he is. And he says he is, so he is.
That's not being cute. Republicans are supposed to be the party that doesn't question the meaning of the word "is."
I believe Isakson is running without reservation or second thought because I've known him since the '80s when I was in college. I've supported him for governor, for Congress, and for senator. I've held a fundraiser for him in my home. I went to college with his former chief of staff. In political parlance, "We've met."
In all of his races, and in all the positions he's been elected or appointed to serve, he's never given the easy answer. He's always given his answer, and left it to the voters to decide if it is the right one. Even when his answer was unpopular. Especially when his answer was unpopular.
I was further able to internalize "he's running for re-election" from a conversation we had over lunch about two years ago. It was an honor to have been asked to join him for a private discussion in DC. The day, scheduled a few weeks in advance, became a bit of a day to remember in Washington circles.
It was a day that I was able to observe almost an hour of angry calls from constituents because Isakson had the temerity to vote to open debate on a gun bill (with the goal to get vulnerable Western Democrats on record). It was a day that Hazmat teams had closed one Senate office building and ricin was suspected on the floor above Isakson's office. The staff, while handling all these calls, was quietly being told to make preparations to quickly evacuate their building if necessary.
Isakson is a man who was not only one of the architects of the modern Georgia Republican Party but was also a mason on the foundation crew. He's put in the work his entire life. He's been content to let others get the credit. And I sat and listened to the utter bitterness of new Republicans who would now stand on his shoulders to criticize because things don't match an impossible idealism that can exist only in one's own head. At the same time, the threats to physical safety that are now inherent to those who hold office and those who work for them became all too real.
It seemed quite thankless. Frankly, it made me angry.
So when Senator Isakson began lunch by saying he didn't have a specific topic, I told him I had a question. After recounting what I had witnessed, and a general atmosphere where our "friends" were now the biggest critics, I could only ask, "Why do we still do this?"
Yes, I said "we." I don't confuse the role a Senator plays with a guy who writes about politics, and certainly not the level of influence. Even my ego understands that. But in all the time I've known him, I've believed he and I do what we do for the same reasons. And, frankly, I was beginning to doubt that it was worth it.
What followed was 45 minutes of classic Johnny Isakson. In a very fatherly tone, he talked about his days in real estate. He said the deal he always wanted was the one that his agents told him was impossible. He always just asked one thing of those that brought him this news: Please get them to the closing table, and make sure I'm there.
Johnny Isakson has made a career of closing deals. He enjoys closing a deal to the point of reveling in it. The more challenging the deal, the more satisfying the closing.
The most challenging deal of his lifetime is fixing the direction of our country. Our parties and partisans are drifting farther apart, with many beginning to talk of irreconcilable differences. Our tax code is broken. We're $18 trillion in debt and still deficit spending. And the culture of Washington is to not talk to the other side.
Isakson understands he is unfortunately rare in his willingness to reach across an aisle. But he's always willing to talk. He's also demonstrated he's willing to walk away from the table rather than sign on to a bad deal for the sake of making any deal. He knows that if he decides to no longer serve, he then has to ask who, if anyone, will work beyond talking points and get us back on track.
I didn't leave angry. I left ready to re-enlist and continue the fight. I know that he will fight as long as he can.
His answer is that he has six more years left of fight in him. They will get physically harder every day, and he is well aware of that. I'm willing to stand behind him every one of those days.
Why? It's much more than the personal feelings I've tried to express above. The Senate is a unique institution as crafted by our founders. It is a body where seniority and relationships determine what gets done and how it will get done.
Georgia has been deficient in seniority for a couple of decades. We are a state of Russell and Nunn. We've had a sitting speaker of the House. Isakson now chairs two committees and is the go-to guy when solutions are needed. He's the guy who can put a Georgia accent on policy that comes through a Republican Congress.
Seniority matters. Experience matters. And the ability to close a deal matters.
Isakson knows the road ahead of him will not get any easier. He's choosing to stay and fight despite this. May God bless him and his family through this fight, as he continues to fight for us.