On Thursday, April 7, the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics hosted John Kasich, who served as Ohio’s governor from 2011 to 2019 and was a congressman for Ohio for 18 years. Introduced by R. Shep Melnick, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Professor of American Politics, Kasich’s time in Congress was characterized by compromise, and this work ethic allowed him to be chairman of the House Budget Committee.
According to Melnick, Kasich is a conservative, but not an “old-fashioned machine republican,” as he is willing to change his ideas and work with members of both parties.
In Congress, in addition to balancing the federal budget, Kasich assisted in the welfare reform act and continued to work closely with various groups in Ohio as a governor. His re-election is a demonstration of his character, perceived as “pragmatic and constitutional” by his constituents.
Beginning his speech, Kasich reflects on his college experience and early introduction to politics. He reflects on his childhood, growing up in Pennsylvania before moving to Ohio to attend the Ohio State University. He recalled an anecdote of his first few weeks of freshman year, where a debacle with roommates set him on a quest to speak with the university’s president.
After insisting upon meeting him, Kasich was successful in meeting with Novice Fawcett, who happened to be friends with none other than President Richard Nixon. In his confident fashion, Kasich all but invited himself to meet President Nixon who Fawcett would be meeting the next day. He was turned down but instead was offered the chance to write a letter to the president, which he happily accepted.
Time passed and Kasich retrieved a letter from his school mailbox from none other than the White House, inviting him to a meeting with the president. It was in the Oval Office that Kasich had stretched his initial 5-minute meeting with the president to a 20-minute one, recalling he “got a new jacket, a new tie, and new pants…[he] didn’t want five minutes.”
Kasich continued, as unusual his experience was for a fresh college student, it was only unusual for people who knew him. He then turned to the audience to say “be whatever you want to be, [but] don’t talk to the people who know you best.”
Kasich then began the next portion of his talk regarding purpose and passion, saying that “if you surround yourself with people who can see dreams bigger than you,” you can accomplish anything. It is oftentimes the people who see us as we are that cannot imagine bigger futures–such as a college Freshman having a meeting in the Oval Office.
Turning then to purpose, Kasich reflects on various works that “we know well at BC,” such as Plato’s theory of the soul, John Locke, and St. Augustine. Reflecting further on St. Augustine, Kasich explains he admired the Saint because he figured out his purpose after “screwing around” for a while. This, he brings up, to declare “it’s never too late to find your purpose.”
Given his faith background, he then asserted to the audience that “you are made special, no one is or ever will be like you.” Kasich chuckled, recalling times when campaigning when he said this phrase and people would become frightened, but he clarified that it is to remind us the “world is a mosaic of people with purpose.”
Noting that purpose can be hard to find, Kasich related it to the meaning of life–which he believes is found not by affecting everyone in the world with our actions, but by profoundly affecting the lives of even a few around us.
He then launched into anecdotal stories of his heroes: Martin Luther King Jr., Natan Sharansky–a human rights activist who spent nine years in Soviet prison, British politician William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. In going through the notable actions and events of these figures, the common themes were kindness, forgiveness, and outward thinking.
Explaining these great accomplishments, Kasich noted that these well-known people were once nobodies. More specifically, Kasich delved into the idea that individual purpose need not make us famous, but will only fulfill our quest for meaning if it makes a difference to those around us.
Then recalling hometown heroes, Kasich proves his point by demonstrating how the actions of one can result in impressive shockwaves throughout communities and regions. Simply because the audience hadn’t heard of many of these men and women, did not take away from their accomplishments. These countless examples of hospital donations and grassroots organization founders drove Kasich to his main message: “change comes from the bottom.”
As a career politician, Kasich’s background and experience as a governor and congressman have allowed him to reflect on where tangible political change stems from. Referencing the college students present at the event, Kasich noted “the Vietnam war was ended on college campuses, not in D.C.” Women’s suffrage, civil rights, climate change activism, have all started and achieved results because of people, he explained.
Later taking a question from an audience member about the role of the government in people-generated change, Kasich describes that “politicians hear who is yelling the loudest.” He laughed saying a politician’s job is to “keep people happy.” As far as environmental or social issues, he encouraged the audience to communicate desires for change directly to politicians because it will not be achieved without grounding at the bottom.
Reflecting more personally on the topic of mental health, Kasich recalls “I listened to a guy try to explain to me why Simone Biles was not courageous.” Noting the importance of mental health services, he determinately stated that fear of weakness and seeking help is natural, but to remember that “a person who admits weakness is strong.”
Reflecting on the loss of his parents and the process of grief, he turned to his faith saying, “religion doesn’t make life easy, but it gives us a perspective.” Relating to his previous comments on mental health, he finds his grounding in the acceptance of something bigger existing.
Turning lastly to politics and polarization, Kasich is known for his denouncement of former president Donald Trump in 2016. While jokingly musing about his time spent working for Fox News and now working at CNN, he then seriously considers the state of American politics. Outlining the “3 countries in America” as the hard left, hard right, and the middle, who desire revolution, no change, and evolution, respectively, Kasich then turns to the divide citizens know all too well.
Most people, he determines, lie somewhere in the middle, and while the more extreme sides can be passionate about their beliefs, he asserts their problem starts when they refuse to listen to anyone else.
As far as the future of polarization in the United States is concerned, Kasich does see a future for partisans working together, noting that to do so requires citizens and politicians alike to “get out of your silo, respect others, and put yourself in others' shoes”.
Lastly in the audience Q & A, Kasich briefly evaluated the Biden administration and made predictions for its future success. First, he noted that President Biden has so far failed at his main task–uniting the country–as his administration has turned insular. Forecasting a Republican House and Senate in the future midterm elections, Kasich stresses that the Biden administration will be more successful and can more effectively remedy the party divide by working with Republicans and demonstrating group-thinking.
More on John Kasich’s work and ideas on growth and purpose can be found in his most recent publication It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change.