By Marion Filler
Presidential buzz definitely was missing from the room as John Kasich, former governor of Ohio, spoke at Drew University in Madison on Tuesday.
It was replaced by something much more relaxed and genuine — a politician free at last to speak his mind.
Wearing a blue suit, white shirt, pink polka dot tie and Dockers, Kasich, 66, appeared tan and fit as he walked onstage.
“There are times we don’t appreciate the greatness that is in our midst,” he began, acknowledging former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who sat in the front row. “And I’ll tell you another one, Christie Todd Whitman.”
Intentionally or not, former Gov. Chris Christie was omitted.
One ex-governor praises another. Video by Marion Filler for MorristownGreen.com:
Folksy stories, replete with one-liners, took up most of Kasich’s 45-minute talk, which concluded this season’s Drew Forum series. Previous speakers included political commentator Ana Navarro, former CIA Director John Brennan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead and MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
Kasich recalled the freshman dorms at Ohio State: Twin towers, 23 stories tall, one filled with 18 year old girls, the other with boys.
“We called them Sodom and Gomorrah,” he joked. His room was unbearably crowded. Following his Uncle Emil’s advice to “start at the top, don’t waste time down below,” Kasich called the president of the university and requested a meeting to air his complaints.
It so happened that the Ohio State president was to see the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, the following week. On a roll, Kasich boldly asked for a letter to be conveyed on his behalf requesting a meeting with Nixon. Much to the student’s surprise, Nixon agreed to see him.
“We sit down at his desk. The good news: I spent 20 minutes, an 18-year-old, first-quarter freshman, with the most powerful man in the world. The bad news: I spent 18 years in Congress. And if you add up all the time I spent in the Oval Office, I peaked out at 18.”
Kasich, who vigorously competed for the Republican Presidential nomination, decried the frenzy engulfing Donald Trump, and the divisiveness of politics. Yet, “on a day-to-day basis, does it really matter to you who the President of the United States is? I can tell you that it doesn’t affect my life on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
He cited a local protest over the demolition of a movie theater. “That’s a hell of a lot more important than some obscure policy coming out of Washington, because that’s where you live and that’s what affects you,” Kasich asserted.
After more anecdotes about ordinary people — Albert the shoeshine man who donated his earnings to a hospital; Flo, the little girl who collected supplies for victims of hurricane Flo; and a rabbi who asked people to visit a friendless Holocaust survivor– he finally came to the point.
People can make a difference, he said, echoing themes from his New York Times bestseller, Two Paths: America Divided or United. Change comes from the bottom up, and it’s usually slow to happen.
He urged listeners to “just show up” for causes they believe in, acknowledging it’s difficult but ultimately worth the effort. Martin Luther King brought about Civil Rights legislation, protests on college campuses hastened the end of the Vietnam War, women demanded their right to vote. Climate change deniers can’t go to Town Hall meetings anymore, and gun reforms eventually will come, he contended.
“All the Parkland kids wanted to do was to say, look, we need some sensible gun laws. We can’t let this happen to somebody else,” Kasich said, referring to activism by survivors of last year’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“They have experienced a torrent of criticism and hatred, but you know, they are winning. They have changed the laws in Florida and are going to change the laws around America. It’s just part of what life is all about.”
His advice for spurring change: “Join a movement, start your own movement, or do what you can to lift your community. Get so angry that you force the politicians to listen and support good leaders.”
When the inevitable audience question came about his political future, Kasich said a Senate run absolutely was off the table. “You couldn’t pay me enough,” he said.
But what about another try for the Oval Office?
“I don’t know where I’m headed, except that I want to keep a voice and I want to be able to speak out. All options are on the table.”