McConnell Pays Tribute to Senator Johnny Isakson

‘The Senate has set today aside to honor our distinguished colleague, the senior Senator from Georgia, Johnny Isakson.’ ‘His retirement this month will cap a 45-year career in public service, packed with one significant accomplishment after another.’ ‘We’re savoring our last few weeks alongside our good friend here in the Senate. We are so lucky to have called him our colleague.’

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) delivered the following remarks today on the Senate floor in tribute to Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA):

‘The Senate has set today aside to honor our distinguished colleague, the senior Senator from Georgia, Johnny Isakson.

‘It’s been about three months since Johnny announced he’d retire at the end of December. Since then, I think we’ve all been taking stock of everything our dear friend has accomplished and everything he means to so many people.

‘I have long said, if the Senate were to hold a secret-ballot popularity contest, Johnny Isakson would win in a bipartisan landslide. Quite possibly even unanimous.

‘He commands bipartisan respect and affection to a degree that is remarkable. But it makes sense for the man whose personal mantra goes like this: “There are only two kinds of people: Friends… and future friends.”

‘For most people, that might be a noble aspiration, but unrealistic. But for Johnny Isakson it’s a statement of fact. Nobody’s an enemy. Nobody’s a stranger. Just friends and future friends and that’s it.

‘With a motto like that, it’s no wonder that Johnny’s first career was a successful stint in real estate — a field in which relationships are everything.

‘It strikes me there’d be two ways you could thrive in a business where friendships and connections matter so much. You could either be good at faking a smile, at feigning interest in others… or you could genuinely love meeting everybody and learning how you might be able to help them.

‘That second kind of person is exactly who Ed and Julie Isakson brought up in Atlanta, Georgia. Warm, honest, forthright, incredibly kind.

‘No wonder Johnny’s neighbors jumped at the chance to hire him to be their State Representative… their State Senator… their Congressman… and their United States Senator.

‘His retirement this month will cap a 45-year career in public service, packed with one significant accomplishment after another.

‘First and foremost in Johnny’s long legacy is his work for our nation’s veterans. He spent six years in the Georgia Air National Guard as a young man. And he’s spent the half-century since then as one of his fellow veterans’ best friends at any level of government.

‘Under Johnny’s chairmanship the Veterans’ Affairs Committee has passed scores of bills: More accountability at the VA. More education benefits. Better community care programs. Better procedures for when veterans appeal a determination. An updated G.I. bill with no more expiration date. And, of course, Johnny’s landmark bill, the VA MISSION Act. It’s now law, providing many of the most significant reforms in the history of the VA – taking power away from bureaucrats and giving it back to veterans and their doctors.

‘Yet somehow, in the midst of compiling this singular record for our nation’s veterans, Johnny racked up countless more legislative successes that impact literally every American.

‘From securing pension protections to reforming education policy… from regional infrastructure projects like the Savannah Harbor Expansion to combating hunger worldwide. One look at the list of laws bearing Johnny’s fingerprints and you’d be forgiven for thinking he never met a problem he couldn’t solve.

‘But alas, every senator sometimes encounters requests from back home that he cannot deliver. Sometimes you have constituents on both sides of an issue. Sometimes a request might conflict with your principles.

‘Whatever the reason, everybody in office eventually disappoints somebody.

‘But Johnny’s staff marvels at the fact that even when Georgians come up here to meet with Johnny and unfortunately go away disappointed, they still walk out of the meeting beaming with praise for their senator. “Can you believe Johnny? He is the greatest guy ever. What a senator.” 

‘And these are the people he’s just told ‘no’!

‘The same traits explain why Johnny is just as popular under this dome as he is back home.

‘And I don’t just mean his fellow members. Johnny Isakson is practically an honorary member of every other member’s staff… and an honorary elevator operator… and an honorary Capitol Police officer… and an honorary member of Chaplain Black’s team… and on and on. He knows and values absolutely everyone.

‘I can’t count how many times I’d hear a peal of laughter from out in my staff bullpen and realize that Johnny Isakson had dropped by, not to see me, but to chat with my team, ask after their families, and maybe check up on a couple of Georgia priorities while he was there.

‘There is one classic story that really distills this man’s character. Most people who’ve hung around Johnny and his team long enough know the famous tale of “the gin-and-tonic in the laundry room.” 

‘Let me say that again. “The gin-and-tonic in the laundry room.”

‘Here’s the deal. In 2006, Johnny was still a new senator. We were tackling some thorny pension issues. And thousands of Georgians stood to be affected if things didn’t get hammered out.

‘So this freshman senator dives in. He goes toe to toe with big players like Ted Kennedy, and Bill Young over in the House.

‘He didn’t get a seat on the conference committee, but he basically appointed himself an honorary member. Johnny worked it like crazy. He sleuthed out where they’d be meeting. He spoke to everyone. And, because it’s Johnny we’re talking about, we know how this ends: He delivered for Georgia.

‘Afterwards, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to hear how their freshman senator had pulled off this victory. Among other things, the reporter asked how Johnny had celebrated. Did he clear out the champagne at some Beltway steakhouse?

‘Here’s what he said. This is a direct quote:

“Isakson said that after the vote, he went straight back to his Capitol Hill area apartment and celebrated — by doing his laundry. He did not want to leave dirty clothes behind for a month.”

‘Quote – "So as I was putting coins in the machine, I had a gin and tonic in the laundry room.”

‘This anecdote is almost the perfect encapsulation of Senator Isakson. It starts with tenacity and a can-do spirit… it’s propelled forward by charisma, smarts, and stubborn patience… and it ends with a win for Georgians... and one celebratory cocktail while wrist-deep in laundry detergent.

‘But there’s one other story that I think reflects this remarkable leader even more perfectly. It starts with one name: Kate Puzey.

‘In 2009, Johnny was reading his local paper and found an obituary for a young lady from northern Georgia who had been in Africa with the Peace Corps. She was just 24. Johnny didn’t know Kate or her family. But he felt called to attend her funeral. He sat quietly in the very back and listened to her friends, family, ministers, Peace Corps colleagues.

‘Unassumingly, he invited the family to stay in touch if there was anything he could do.

‘Only later did they relate what wasn’t in the obituary. Kate had been murdered in the dark of night after sounding the alarm on child abuse in her village, in the African country of Benin. 

‘Johnny Isakson was on the case from that day forward.

‘Not only was he a fixture on the Foreign Relations Committee, he was actually Ranking Member on the Africa subcommittee. So he put a framed photo of Kate on his desk and leapt into action.

‘Senator Isakson flew to Benin to personally lean on its president. He met with Peace Corps officials. He built a legislative coalition for reforms to better protect volunteers. 

‘And, like I said earlier, because this is Johnny Isakson we’re talking about, we know how this story ends: with results.

‘He helped Kate’s parents pursue justice. And just a couple years after Johnny sat down in that pew, the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act was law.

‘Now that is Johnny Isakson in one story. He starts out trying to do good for his neighbors and winds up literally changing the world.

‘Of course, changing the world can be grueling work. We all know Johnny’s health has made his tireless service more and more challenging in recent months.

‘As much as the other 99 of us hate to hear it, he has decided it’s time to find new ways to serve that don’t involve twice-weekly air travel or winding trips through the Capitol complex.

‘But we know our friend is not riding off into the sunset or kicking up his heels. I know he’s bound and determined to keep putting his expertise and boundless institutional knowledge to work on behalf of Georgians who need him. 

‘I have no doubt he’ll keep on advocating for Georgians, with a pen and phone, more friends across the country than anyone can count up, and maybe a few of his eight grandchildren by his side.

‘It sounds like a pretty enviable work arrangement. And no doubt, Johnny’s earned it. He’s earned the right to a little less late-night voting and a little more time with his lovely wife, Dianne.

‘So on behalf of all his colleagues, I’d tell Johnny to go ahead and relax just a little. Maybe find something to drink. But this time around, he should enjoy it on the front porch with Dianne and leave the laundry ‘til later.

‘We’re savoring our last few weeks alongside our good friend here in the Senate. We are so lucky to have called him our colleague.’

Related Issues: Tributes