Those who know János Horváth tend to be in awe of him, and understandably so. Horváth is a symbol of freedom in our time. And, to borrow an old line, more than a symbol, a man — a real, honest, flesh-and-blood man.
In 1945, he was the youngest member of the Hungarian Parliament, aged 24. Today, he is the “doyen” of the parliament, aged 92. There have been tumultuous and rich years in between.
He was born in 1921, meaning that he was in his late teens when World War II came to Hungary. He fought the Nazis, was caught by them, and was sentenced to death by them. Hours before his scheduled execution, he managed to escape, thanks to the chaos in Budapest.
After the war, he was elected to parliament, and also to the Budapest City Council. Furthermore, he served as economic adviser to the prime minister, Ferenc Nagy.
In 1947, the Soviets crushed the revived Hungarian democracy, and Horváth was again arrested. He was convicted in a show trial as an “enemy of the people.” He spent four years in prison.
When the revolution came in 1956, he was a leader of it. When it was crushed, he came to the United States, as a diplomat of the revolution. He took a leading role in exile politics: helping to organize the Hungarian Revolutionary Council in Strasbourg, and establishing the Kossuth Foundation in New York. (Lajos Kossuth, who lived from 1802 to 1894, is regarded as the father of Hungarian democracy.)
In due course, Horváth earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University. He embarked on a long teaching career in the United States. For 27 years, he was at Butler University in Indianapolis. Once, the mayor of that city, Richard Lugar, declared János Horváth Day. Horváth’s wife, Linda, is a Hoosier.
More than a professor, he was a public intellectual and activist. He was president of the Indiana Council on World Affairs. He was on radio and television, and in newspapers and magazines. In 1990 and 1992, he was the Republican nominee for Congress, in Indiana’s Tenth Congressional District. (He lost both times to the perpetual incumbent, Democrat Andrew Jacobs.)
He knew Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush, and many others. He was a constant advocate of democracy, human rights, and free markets.
In 1998, he returned to his native Hungary. He was elected to parliament in May of that year — 53 years after his first electoral victory. He has been reelected in 2002, 2006, and 2010.
János Horváth has received many awards, of course, including the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom.
Today, he is president of the Hungarian section of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Recently, he was on IPU business in New York. I sat down with him in a hotel across from the United Nations. This week, I will relate our discussion in this column, paraphrasing when necessary or desirable, delivering the essence of this discussion.
“How many years did you live in America?” I ask. “Forty-one,” he says. “So,” I answer, “you are my fellow American, really, right?” “Indeed,” he says. “When I repatriated to Hungary, 16 years ago, I had a longer American incarnation than I did a Hungarian one — but the Hungarian one is getting longer.”
“Let me inquire about pronunciation: In Hungarian, you are YAHN-ohsh HOR-vaht, correct?” “Yes, correct. The ‘h’ is silent. It is just an embellishment!” “Did your American students call you Professor HOR-vath” (pronounced in a normal English style)? “Yes.”
“Did you know another famous János, János Starker?” “Yes, we were good friends.”
(János Starker was a Hungarian-American cellist, who lived from 1924 to 2013. He long taught at Indiana University, in the same state where Horváth lived and taught.)
“Did you know Bálint Vázsonyi, too?” “Oh, yes, I knew him well, and I also knew some of his relatives.”
(Vázsonyi was a Hungarian-American pianist who taught at IU. Like Horváth, he was a classical liberal and a Republican. He was the Republican nominee for mayor of Bloomington — and, like Horváth, he was not elected. I met Vázsonyi one night at Bill Buckley’s, where he was a guest at a National Review editorial dinner. Vázsonyi, who was born in 1936, died in 2003.)
“Could you tell me a little about running for Congress?” “Well, the Republicans in Indiana convinced me to run — Dick Lugar, Mitch Daniels, and other ‘kingmakers.’ I didn’t apply for the job of nominee; they sought me out. I was a conservative and a patriot, and I had participated in a number of public things, so I figured I should do it.
“It was understood that I could not win. The incumbent, Andrew Jacobs, was unbeatable. He was a labor-union man, a hero of the Korean War — always elected, a shoo-in. But every two years, the Republicans had to put someone up against him, of course. They tried a lawyer, a businessman, a woman, a Jewish candidate, a black candidate — you name it. And then comes János, the freedom fighter, the hero, the professor!
“Regardless of whether I could win, I enjoyed running. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. More important than winning is the process — to be part of the process. That’s what matters. I think I would have done well as a congressman, but the important things are the processes and the institutions. Those have to be kept going.”
Suddenly, Horváth has a memory — another memory: “Actually, I was recruited to run in Washington State, many years before Indiana. It was in the 1960s. I was teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, and the local Republicans wanted me to run. But I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing at that time. I was still absorbed in exile politics — even though the Soviet Union had cemented its hold over Hungary.”
Back to Indiana: “When I lost in 1992, George Bush said it was his fault. He has always said it. ‘I was at the top of the ticket, János, and I ran poorly, and I cost you the election.’ That wasn’t true, of course, but that’s what he has always said. He was in Hungary some years ago, and still remembered!”
I ask Horváth how he came to know Bush. “Mainly because of his foreign-policy involvement. He had been director of the CIA and so on. And when he was vice president, he asked me to have dinner in his residence at the Naval Observatory.”
There was a Hungarian refugee who made it to Congress: Tom Lantos, the California Democrat (who served in the House from 1981 until his death in 2008). In addition to being a refugee, he was a Holocaust survivor. And he was a consistent champion of human rights around the world.
Says Horváth, “He would always tell me, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could serve in Congress together?’”
We then go back to the beginning — to Horváth’s childhood, between the wars. I will resume this report in tomorrow’s edition. Thanks for joining me (and us).