Alumni Feature: Bob Understein
Even though we think of ourselves as a “young organization” because we work with a youthful and energetic crowd, we’ve been around as an organization for a while. ACYPL was founded in 1966, when the set of issues facing young politicians looked very different from those that today’s leaders are expecting to contend with during their lifetime. Then, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed far greater than any discussion of subprime mortgages or sequesters.
It’s with that lens that Bob Understein sees the work we do. Bob traveled on his first ACYPL program in 1973, visiting a Japan that still had great strides ahead of it in its path towards economic prosperity. His tenure with ACYPL brought him to several intersections with history: Australia during a flashpoint debate, East Germany under the Iron Curtain, and to the Brussels headquarters of NATO in its tensest hours.
Bob’s a great example of why we care so much about what we do. He’s the kind of guy that would have gone on to be an effective businessman and political leader irrespective of his participation in our programs. But by taking part in an ACYPL exchange during his formative years, Bob learned lessons he never would have sought out on his own. He gained a perspective that’s unique to his experience on his political delegations. And, at the end of the day, we know that that gave him an outlook that not many of his colleagues share.
In Japan, Bob had the honor of meeting personally with a man named Morihiro Hosokawa. On their first encounter, Morihiro seemed like many of the other Japanese legislators they had met – polite, intelligent, and insightful. Bob was certainly as impressed as he was with all their hosts to that point, but he wasn’t prepared for what came next.
Knowing that Morihiro’s family was a political dynasty of sorts, he casually asked, “How long has your family been in politics?” Morihiro, in a similarly casual fashion, replied, “About 600 years.” Morihiro then described to Bob how his ancestry included two emperors and three prime ministers, a lineage that prompted the delegates to start calling him “The Japanese JFK”.
Bob’s travels with ACYPL also took him to a Germany still divided along Cold War lines. Upon crossing the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, he describes the ominous feeling of moving from a land of prosperity into one of hardship. Even the riflemen manning the wall were a herald of the change, as the group noticed that they were walking past a series of loaded barrels pointed directly at them.
The opportunities to experience a variety of different cultures don’t end there, though. Often delegations are given seats to watch history in the making. Upon visiting Australia in 1983, Bob was party to a milestone in that country’s electoral history. During a visit to the offices of the president of the Senate, the group was cordially invited to watch a debate taking place that night, seated alongside some of Australia’s most prominent political figures. The debate, which featured Prime Minister Bob Hawke and a relatively unpopular Andrew Peacock, proved to be a flashpoint for Australia when Peacock outgunned Hawke and won a surprising victory. The delegates were privy to the first conversations in the moments following the debate, when Australians themselves were grappling with what to make of the event.
It’s these moments that Bob remembers as he thinks back on the impact ACYPL has had on his life. Not only were they instructive, but Bob recounts to me that his path in life was shaped and transformed by the experiences he had interacting with political figures of all stripes in various societies. Without that perspective, he says, his image of the world would be colored in less vivid tones. His pride in these memories is evident as he relates one last story. As we were finishing up our interview, he pulled out a note he received some years ago.
“This is from Morihiro,” he says. “He sent it to me when he became Prime Minister of Japan in 1993.”