Pretty much everybody has had something nice to say about Johnny Isakson in the wake of his passing on Sunday. It was much the same two years ago when he announced his retirement from the Senate due to health challenges. The tributes piled up.
From the many compliments Isakson received after deciding to step down, a common theme emerged. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that “one of the many fine adjectives to describe Johnny Isakson is a word not used enough in the halls of Congress these days: kind.” Many others expressed a similar sentiment.
Isakson’s kindness manifested itself in many forms over the years. His annual bipartisan barbeque was praised by senators on both sides of the aisle, both for the legendary fare and the friendships formed. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) observed that during the lunches senators’ “differences disappeared slathered in sauce.”
The tradition was revived in 2021 after a COVID hiatus last year.
Outside of the halls of Congress, too, Isakson’s concern for others was obvious. In 2009, he read in a newspaper about Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, who had been murdered while serving as an English teacher in the west African nation of Benin.
Isakson attended Puzey’s funeral, became friends with her family, and made it his mission to push the Beninese government for justice. His relationship with the Puzeys also produced a new piece of legislation: Isakson introduced the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in June 2011. President Obama signed it into law a few months later.
In addition to these and other very noticeable examples, Isakson exhibited what I would call everyday kindness: the subtle, interpersonal warmth that does not usually show up in headlines or accolades.
I know, because I’ve been the recipient of it. In 2016, I had the opportunity to spend my summer break from college as the press and scheduling intern in Isakson’s Washington, D.C. office. I accompanied the senator to many of his media engagements, and his personal office was right next to the room where I worked. For a life-long politics junkie, this was the thrill of a lifetime.
Johnny, as he preferred to be called, was always nice to everybody, but there was one instance towards the end of my internship that really stood out. The senator was leaving his office in the Russell Senate Office Building to walk to the Capitol. It was the end of the week, and I was afraid this might be the last time I saw him before heading back to college. I followed him into the hallway.
“Will you be coming back to the office, sir?” I called after him. He quickly turned around.
“Yes, I’ll be back, but only for a few minutes. Why? Do you need me to do something?”
This question caught me off guard. Here was a member of the United States Senate who wanted nothing more than to be on a flight back to Atlanta taking the time to ask if there was something he could do for a lowly intern. I replied that I simply wanted to say it had been a pleasure interning in his office.
“Oh, that’s right! It’s y’all’s last day!” he exclaimed, grabbing my arm. “You’ve done a great job.” I wasn’t sure that had always been true, but it made me feel good to hear him say it anyway. I thanked him and said that it had been one of the best experiences of my life.
“Well, I wish it was longer for both of us,” Isakson replied.
As I watched him shuffle down the hall, I was so glad that I had gotten to speak to him before he left. But that was not actually the last time I saw him that day. A little while later, Isakson popped back into the office and went through the entire suite, thanking all the interns he could find. It made my day, and almost certainly made everyone else’s, too.
A loyal Republican, it was unusual for Isakson to buck the party line (although on occasion, he did). But there is a reason that members of both parties in the upper chamber lamented his retirement and that everyone is honoring his life.
In a political climate that undervalues kindness, Johnny Isakson stood out. In the coming years, I hope that more elected officials of all political persuasions follow his lead. Our country would be a better place.
James Thompson is from Sylvania and currently works as a missionary in Thailand.