John Kasish addressing the audience in Johnson Chapel at Amherst College

The ephemeral nature of life was on John Kasich’s mind as he stepped in front of a packed house at Johnson Chapel in February.

“Why does it matter that we recognize the fact that we don’t live forever?” Kasich asked. “It should free us up to lead a big life, to take risks, to take live a life a little bigger than ourselves.”

Kasich, a two-term Republican governor of Ohio, talked about a wide swath of topics, from meeting President Nixon to the writings of Plato and Nietzsche.

He began by outlining his early life as the son of a mail carrier in Pennsylvania. Soon after heading to college at Ohio State, Kasich said, he demanded a meeting with the university president to lodge a complaint about his living situation. At 6-foot-5, the Ohio State leader “was the epitome of what a college president should look like,” recalled Kasich, quickly realizing his gaffe and turning to President Biddy Martin: “I knew it was a matter of time until I got in trouble here,” he joked, to laughter. “It happened within the first five minutes. Can I still get your vote somewhere in the future?”

Kasich described writing a letter to the White House as that same brash freshman, and subsequently being invited to meet Nixon. Told he’d have five minutes with the president, he decided, “I didn’t come all the way here for five lousy minutes.” He ended up getting 20.

I will tell you what I think really matters to you: your classes, your roommates, your brothers and sisters, the people you hang out with at school,” Kasich said.

That introduction to politics led to a life of government service, including 18 years in Congress. While he made two runs for the Republican presidential nomination, in 2000 and 2016, Kasich downplayed the role of the president in people’s lives, suggesting that power flows from the people to the top, not vice versa.

“Does it really matter to you what the president of the United States does?” Kasich asked. “I will tell you what I think really matters to you: your classes, your roommates, your brothers and sisters, the people you hang out with at school. Those are the ones that really affect your life directly.”

And that, he said, is proof that “what we do in our lives really matters.” He continued, “Think about what that means for your destiny. You’re here for a reason.”

During the Q&A, students countered his view on presidential power. A philosophy major from Pakistan, for example, said President Trump’s immigration policies have directly threatened his ability to finish his Amherst degree.

Kasich agreed that is a case in which the president affects the individual, saying his larger point is that “we’re too hung up on someone riding in and solving our problems.”

Kasich pointed out areas in which he departs from his party, including on environmental issues. “The Republican party,” he said, “was my vehicle, not my master.”

“I want to be straight with you,” he said. “I’m not governor anymore, and I didn’t make it as president. That’s all I can do, be the best I can.”

Photos by: Jiayi Liu