Rob Bishop: From Mormon missionary to bridge builder with Germany
Washington • Just four months after taking office, Rep. Rob Bishop found himself in one of Germany's most famous college towns. Although he'd been there before, it had been more than three decades since he last set foot on Heidelberg's picturesque streets.
On his first trip, he was serving as an ambassador for his church. On his second, he was representing his nation.
In the past decade, Bishop has emerged as Congress' expert on Germany and the only member fluent in its language. Meeting with German lawmakers twice a year, he continues to develop a nuanced understanding of their politics and lasting friendships that extend beyond standard diplomatic exchanges.
"That's why he's such a good politician. He's so curious," said Otto Fricke, a member of the Bundestag, the German parliament. "He's not the typical one that says, 'I'm just doing something for my constituency, and that's how I push.' He wants to understand how the country works."
A young political junkie • Bishop exhibited that same curiosity on his Mormon mission in the heart of southern Germany even if his high-school German classes and missionary training left him a little nervous.
Mission leaders met Bishop when he first flew to the country in 1970 and coached him on a few phrases to get him to his temporary home, then they sent him on his way. But when a German bus driver asked him a follow-up question, he found himself at a loss.
"I just froze," Bishop remembers. "I didn't know what he said or how I was supposed to respond, so I just stood there and I realized how desperate it was."
It took at least two months before he acclimated to his surroundings and felt comfortable interacting with native Germans, whom he found to be upbeat and pro-American, if not religious.
He said Germans were a "very secular" people and prompting them to talk openly about matters of faith was a true feat. Getting them to discuss politics was far easier.
Serving at a time of political upheaval, Bishop discussed the German elections with great interest. He can still recall the leading figures four decades later, including a failed regional election of neo-Nazi candidate Adolf von Thadden and an attempt to overthrow then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
"[Germany] has a unique system. â¦ You cannot bring a government down unless you replace it," Bishop said. "[Politician] Rainer Barzel had tried that while I was there in Heidelberg against Willy Brandt but was unsuccessful, and that's how Helmut Kohl came into power."
As a young political junkie, Bishop couldn't get enough.
"For me it was exciting to go through a couple of the elections," he said. "And I got all sorts of German posters and things."
Strong ties • As a Mormon missionary, Bishop never made it to Berlin, never saw the infamous wall or felt the animosity between East and West Germany.
But he did as a Utah state lawmaker his sole trip to the country between his mission and his congressional service.
It was 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He flew in for a trip sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures but decided to arrive early to squeeze in a little sightseeing.
On the flight, Bishop grew nervous, worried his memory of the language would desert him.
"When I got to Frankfurt, I was just a basket case," he said. "I didn't know what to do; I didn't know where to go. This was the dumbest thing I'd ever done in my life I just sat on my suitcases."
He decided to exchange his currency when he heard a holler from behind him.
"Rob, what are you doing here?"
Whipping around, Bishop saw a friend who taught German at Salt Lake City's East High and his kids. Amazed and relieved Bishop joined the family on a bus tour and went out with them that evening.
"Life was clear from then on," Bishop said. "All my inhibitions were gone."
After rejoining his colleague, Bishop toured the Berlin Wall and got a glance into East Berlin, later traversing its war-torn streets. He recalls the land appearing to be draped in "black and white" a stark contrast to the vitality it boasted when he returned in 2003, his first excursion as a Republican U.S. House member.
"We were able to go up to the wall itself on the west side and look over into the east and see the land mines, the guard towers," he said. "It [seemed] very old. There were the same buildings, but there was nothing to it. There was nobody on the streets; there wasn't any vibrancy. That, to me, has always been profound: the difference between Berlin under East German control communist dictatorship and Berlin today."
In a testament to Bishop's nonchalant nature, he still allowed room for a little lighthearted conversation.
"I found out you do not try to joke with East German border guards," he said. "They do not have a sense of humor."
This trip was the first time Bishop's professional career coincided with his religious mission, an experience that is not uncommon among Mormon politicians. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was a missionary in Taiwan and recently served as the U.S. ambassador to China; former Rep. Chris Cannon said his mission to Guatemala greatly influenced his position on immigration.
Direct impact • On even-numbered years, members of the Bundestag take two trips to the United States, and on odd-numbered ones, U.S. representatives visit Germany twice. Bishop has missed just two of these journeys since 2003, going on 17 trips with Bundestag members at a cost of more than $86,000 over his political career, including one to Florida in January. These trips are funded in part by the Association of Former Members of Congress and the German Marshall Fund, an American, nonpartisan public-policy institution.
Before trips to Germany, Bishop regularly receives State Department briefings, because while the trips are not official diplomatic missions, he's still seen as a representative of the U.S. government when talking with foreign dignitaries.
In at least one instance, the trips directly affected legislation by Bishop an attempt to boost the nation's foreign-exchange program by increasing tax deductions for certain students living in a taxpayer's household.
He argued that much of the anti-American sentiment in the world is due simply to a lack of exposure.
"I realized that those places in Germany that are extremely pro-American are those that have the greatest contact with Americans," Bishop said in a 2005 House floor speech. "It would be wise to do everything we could to encourage students of the world to experience what this country has to offer, return home and watch that influence tend to grow."
He stopped pushing the bill, which didn't pass, but still believes in its message, calling America's youths "perfect ambassadors."
One of Bishop's sons also served an LDS mission in Germany, and the congressman has been able to bring most of his five children along on the trips.
Benefits, friendships • Bishop served as the chairman of the Congressional Study Group in 2008 and received a chance to host a German delegation in Utah. The four-day trip involved a tour of the northern part of the state and discussions of energy, religion in politics, trade regulation and NATO's future.
"It's not every day you get multiple members of the Congress, let alone the German Parliament, up to places like Ogden or Brigham City," Bishop said at the time. "We wanted to show off northern Utah, but also show how our state was positively impacting things like health care and the environment."
This year, German lawmakers will head to Georgia, home state of the current Study Group leader, GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey, who joined at Bishop's recommendation.
"It's one of the most enjoyable and nicest things that I do up here. It certainly has impacted Congress," Gingrey said in an interview just off the House floor. "We've got a lot learn from them, and they've got a lot to learn from us as well. It's mutually beneficial."
The relationships sometimes go beyond the formal and professional.
Bishop maintains a regular email banter with Otto Fricke, the Bundestag member he met in 2004, that touches on politics but tends to veer into baseball.
Fricke, who has been to games in Chicago's Wrigley Field and New York's Yankee Stadium, shares Bishop's affection for the sport and says it makes for an "easy entrance" into communication.
"You can use so many things in baseball to explain things more easily," Fricke said. "We like soccer, [Americans] like baseball, and it's a completely different ballgame. You can really translate that into foreign relations."
Fricke also appreciates that Bishop is easygoing and informal. To discuss politics, the two often simply go for a drink.
"There's only one thing Bishop always does care about: that there is enough Dr Pepper," Fricke joked. "If we see Dr Pepper somewhere with a group, people say, 'Rob must be around.' "
Fricke enjoys taking the occasional jab at the Utah congressman.
"If you want to make fun of Bishop, you wear a White Sox cap," Fricke said. "He's a Cubs fan."