Freshmen in Morrie Shelkoff’s honors government class at Bryan County High School got a chance Tuesday to interview U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, during a morning Skype session in the school’s media center.
So that’s what they did — politely grilling the two-term senator and former U.S. representative from Atlanta on everything from same-sex marriage and medical marijuana to religion, schools, the economy and Obamacare. Though Isakson was in his Washington, D.C., office, thanks to technology he and some of BCHS’ top ninth-graders
might as well have been in the same room.
Some questions from the freshmen drew compliments from Isakson, such as one in which a freshman asked whether the Republicans’ new majority in both the House and Senate might end partisan gridlock and get some work done. But Isakson’s response might have surprised some.
"Play close attention to this," he told the teens. "In the last 75 years, the two most effective presidents were Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton."
Both faced Congresses controlled by opposing parties, yet Isakson said both managed to get meaningful legislation passed, whether it was reform to the tax code, immigration or welfare reform.
"Often times, a divided government is the best government, because it forces you to sit at a table and find common ground," he said.
Students also asked what role his faith played in his decisions. Isakson said that as a Christian, faith has an effect on his guiding principles, but he added that he was elected to serve people of all denominations and those without a religion, "so I’ve got to make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of all people."
And when asked to name his biggest concern, Isakson countered with a question of his own.
"I’ve got to pick one?" he said, mentioning terrorism and the economy before settling on a single issue.
"I think we have a problem today because so many people today aren’t responsible for themselves," he said. "The greatest single problem in our country today is a lack of self-discipline. That’s not everybody, and certainly not yourselves — you’re model students, AP students — but self-discipline important, and it’s lacking in this country."
Isakson also told the students they are lucky — "lucky to have been born in the greatest state in the greatest country on the face of the Earth."
"You’re getting an education by great teachers, you have a great board of education and a great school system. America’s a great country, which rewards people who work hard and play by the rules, and I tell everybody, be a dreamer."
He didn’t duck the harder questions, telling students that marriage, in his opinion, is between a man and woman, but it also isn’t a federal issue. Isakson also tackled the medical-marijuana question, noting it was cannabis oil that was so helpful to those children who needed it. Regarding religion in schools, he pointed out the Constitution separates church and state.
"We’re also free to speak and free to worship, but I don’t think school should teach one religion," he said. "But not doing the Pledge or the prayer in school, I think that’s an overreaction to the separation between church and state. You have to respect everybody’s religion and everybody’s faith, and respect our Constitution, which protects your right to worship as you see fit."
He also seemed to rule out a run for the presidency. Isakson recently announced he’ll seek a third term in the Senate, but also noted he first ran for office in 1974 and, if voters re-elect him, will likely end his political career in the Senate, though he didn’t limit himself to one more term.
Shelkoff said the questions were the students’ own, and she didn’t edit them — other than perhaps a minor grammatical tweak or two, she said — to fit any agendas or give Isakson softball questions.
"They wrote the questions, I didn’t," she said. "I did make a few changes for grammar, but I would say 90 percent of them are as they wrote them. They were all good questions."
Isakson’s first Skype session was July 2011 with 1,500 high-school students from metro Atlanta. Tuesday’s was one of two that day for the senator, who so far has talked with 33 classes throughout Georgia.
Among those who participated in Tuesday’s session were BCHS students Arien Hodge and Caleb Achens. Both said the session helped them understand real government, not what they see on TV or online.
"It was very exciting, and a great opportunity to figure out what our government and senator actually does," Hodges said, noting she felt Isakson was honest and earnest in his answers to the students’ questions. "He was real."
Achens, an aspiring engineer, said listening to Isakson made him realize politics may not be quite as simple to define as he believed.
"This showed me it’s not as messed up and crooked as its set up to be," he said.
Shelkoff said the Skype session buoyed her faith in her students, as well.
"When I’m sitting there in the classroom trying to pull things out of them and wondering if they are paying attention, I’m thinking, ‘Does this mean anything to them,’" Shelkoff said. "And then we do a Skype session and they ask these intelligent questions and they conduct themselves in just a fantastic manner — (and I know) they’ll be fine in life."