I didn’t know Balint Vazsonyi very well, but like many conservatives I came to admire him before he died of cancer last week at the age of 66.
It was impossible not to respect the guy. Vazsonyi was an immigrant from Hungary — a refugee of Communism — who achieved distinction as a concert pianist. According to the Washington Times obituary, he once played all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in the order they were composed over the course of a single weekend. Late in life he also became an eloquent spokesman for the American constitutional order. He ran the Center for the American Founding, toured the country promoting the founding principles of his adopted country, and wrote a best-selling book, America’s 30 Years War.
It’s been said that nobody appreciates the United States like a person who wasn’t born here, and Vazsonyi expressed a Tocquevillean love of country. “By the time I got my citizenship in 1964, I was grateful and immensely proud to be told by the judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I would not be a Hungarian-American, nor any other hyphenated American,” he wrote in his book. “While no one suggested then, or has since, that I disown or forget my upbringing, I was now simply and officially, American.”
My personal encounters with Vazsonyi were limited. I once visited his home at the Watergate complex, and we would chat at various functions around Washington, D.C. We also engaged in a spirited debate. In 2001, my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru and I proposed amending the Constitution to permit foreign-born Americans to serve as president — half seriously, and half on a lark. Vazsonyi, an immigrant with a deeper understanding of the United States than most native-born Americans, dissented. I replied to him the next day, suggesting that Vazsonyi was exactly the sort of immigrant we had in mind and proposing a candidacy in 2008. Vazsonyi blushed and demurred: “The reason I am so certain about the special nature of American tolerance is precisely my own inability to acquire, even to emulate, it — and that after 40-plus years of trying.”
At that point, I just shrugged and decided he was entitled to his opinion — which, incidentally, is probably more shared by ordinary Americans than my own. Presidential timber or not, there’s no denying Balint Vazsonyi was a great patriot who will be sorely missed.