The American Legion Magazine
Alan W. Dowd
DR. BALINT VAZSONYI, director of the Center for the American Founding and author of "America's 30 Years War," is a throwback to another era. He's a man who could easily have lived during the Renaissance or Enlightenment. An accomplished concert pianist, historian, author, professor and entrepreneur, Vazsonyi seems to possess boundless reserves of energy and curiosity. "I'm still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up," he quips, now producing a documentary film while running a think tank based in suburban Washington, D.C.
Yet he's not your typical Renaissance Man. Vazsonyi has run for mayor of a Midwestern college town. He can quote Jerry Seinfeld and James Madison with equal ease. And his message resonates not just with intellectuals, historians and policymakers, but with high school students, homemakers and civic leaders.
When it became apparent that the Soviets had crushed the 1956 revolution in his native Hungary, Vazsonyi fled on foot across the border into Austria. There he waited until Congress lifted its ban on Hungarian immigration. He arrived in Florida in 1958. Vazsonyi has spent most of his life in America. He gained national prominence as he led the "Re-elect America" bus tour across the country promoting a national discussion on the principles that have made America free and prosperous - the rule of law, individual rights, security of property and a common national identity.
According to Vazsonyi, those four principles "are stronger than the issues which divide us." The tour was suspended in May to allow Vazsonyi to devote more time to a documentary covering those same issues.
Associate Editor Alan Dowd interviewed Vazsonyi as work on his documentary film moved into the final phase.
The American Legion Magazine: The Re-elect America Tour traveled to half of the state capitals before it was suspended to allow you and your staff to focus on the production of a documentary on the same topic. Do you have any thoughts or reflections on the tour?
Dr. Balint Vazsonyi: You're asking me at an excellent moment. We are just about halfway through editing our documentary about the bus tour. And it's absolutely amazing to see how much of America we came in contact with.
We wanted to start a national conversation about the principles upon which America was founded. What is interesting is that every time we had a forum, the fundamental issues that unite us came into sharper focus - the rule of law, individual rights, security of property and our common American identity. It's misleading to read the newspapers and watch television, because when you go out there to America, people are very interested. Governors, mayors, high schools, colleges, public-policy institutions, the Legion, the people on the street - all of them joined the conversation.
Even though our friends at the Legion and other supporters were disappointed when the tour was suspended - as we were - remember that we crossed the continent two times. And there is such a thing as diminishing returns. And I think there was some kind of providence at work in what we have done, and I really mean this: the way it worked out, we came home, sifted through everything and now will report it to the nation, having taken our message to half the country. Actually, if you add up the population of the states we visited, it's a little bit more than half the country.
Q: Could you discuss your progress on the documentary?
A: It's absolutely elating to sit here and produce this documentary. We are trying to put together a one-hour documentary, but we have material for a 10-hour documentary.
If all goes well, it will be broadcast on WETA, one of the three flagship stations of PBS. They have given us a letter of intent to schedule and broadcast the documentary.
Our working title is "Talking with America: A Conversation Across Party Lines." If it's successful, we will be happy to produce another with additional footage.
Q: During the tour, you often spoke about the American Flag. Could you comment on the Supreme Court decision that struck down the flag-protection laws and the constitutional amendment that failed to get the necessary number of votes this spring in the Senate?
A: All things being equal, we shouldn't need a constitutional amendment to protect the flag. It should be in people's hearts.
I find it an unwelcome development that the need has even arisen for an amendment. Until only very recently, it would not have occurred to anyone to desecrate the flag. I can see no reason to desecrate the flag. A person who does that should simply be expelled from whatever community he lives in. It has nothing to do with the free expression of opinion. People can say whatever they want in America. That is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. If they hate this country enough to desecrate the flag, they ought not live in this country.
I think the Supreme Court should not take it upon itself to treat something that is an act as if it were speech. The Supreme Court really has no mandate to change words in the dictionary. What the Constitution protects in the First Amendment is the freedom of speech. To burn the flag is not speech. I don't think the Supreme Court or any other authority can look at these words and conclude that when the founders said speech they meant something else. The framers spoke English exceedingly well, and if they had meant other things, they would have put them in there.
Q: What do you recommend concerned Americans read to make them better citizens in this republic?
A: That's a very interesting question. First of all - and I sound like a broken record - the founding documents are a source of continuing fascination and a pleasure to read. Every time I open them, I find something new and interesting. And that is true of all great works.
I think George Washington's farewell address is one of the finest things for Americans to read to remind themselves of the greatness of the man and the beauty of the thoughts he had. Much of what we have from Benjamin Franklin is worth reading and rereading. The correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is something I would mention. All of this would help us keep in touch with America the way it should be.
As far as literature is concerned, I've always been a great fan of Mark Twain. I started reading him in Hungarian at about the age of 10. Reading him is another way of keeping in touch with America's foundation. Of course, I'm tempted to say that since there is so little reading going on nowadays, reading anything is important.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the greatest challenge facing America today?
A: The greatest challenge facing America is to realize in this fast-paced life and tremendous noise of the beginning of this new century that the original ideas upon which America was founded are still the only game in town. Not only has no one come up with anything better, but it was a true miracle that the founding of America happened. Everything we need for this country to be a better place is right there in the Constitution. If Americans hear this message, America will survive all challenges in the future as it has in the past.