In Joe Biden’s opinion, if there’s one line from JFK’s famous “moon speech” that can best describe where the nation is at in curing cancer, it’s that “we are unwilling to postpone.”
To a jam-packed Irvine Auditorium, Biden deliberately and passionately declared: “Every second counts.”
The former vice president was addressing a question from Nicholas McAndrew, a Penn Medicine Hematology and Oncology Fellow, who asked how the Biden-led Cancer Moonshot was going.
Biden looked McAndrew straight in his eyes: “We’re going to beat this sucker because of people like you.”
Biden—Penn’s very own Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor—joined University President Amy Gutmann on Thursday, March 29, for an engaging conversation on a variety of topics with the Penn community. Gutmann kicked off the discussion with a timely nod to gun violence protests, and the worldwide #NeverAgain marches that took place this past weekend. She asked, “What makes this a movement instead of a moment?”
Involved for years in fighting for rational gun policy, Biden explained that what is being seen is “totally spontaneous” on the part of the students. “There was no adult inspiration for this. They insisted. They’ve forced an awful lot of elected officials to rip the Band-Aid off.”
Something that’s often underestimated, Biden said, “and you students know this in your gut,” he insisted, is that “you have more influence on your parents than they have on you.
“We take great faith and stock in what our kids arrive at independently and really believe,” he continued. “These millions of kids—and there are millions—they are impacting their parents’ sense of responsibility, and you’re going to see it in the polls. You are going to see it change. This is already a movement. It’s spontaneous, it’s real, and I predict that it’s not going to stop.”
Gutmann also dove into foreign policy, appropriately related to Biden’s role as leader of the new Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. She discussed a recent piece Biden wrote—titled “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin”—with Michael Carpenter, a major figure in the Department of Defense and current senior director of the Penn Biden Center.
“What we wrote about was the minacious influence of Russia on one thing that we need the most: the post-World War II liberal world order,” he said. “What Russia is doing, in a very calculated way, is trying to undermine the very institutions that prevent them from exercising and abusing power. That’s why they are trying to dismantle NATO, the EU, and most of the international institutions that exist because that allows them free rein.”
Only about a half hour of the event focused on Gutmann’s directed questions, the remaining hour fell in the hands of the audience—full of more than 1,000 students, faculty, and staff members.
They touched on international issues such as the meetings between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, and eventually Kim’s meeting with Moon Jae-in, and what they mean for U.S. diplomacy in Asia, as well as if Biden has advice for Ukraine leaders on how to stand up to the Kremlin. Other questions focused on how Biden managed to maintain good working relations and effective team dynamics in a high-pressure environment like the White House, and what he misses most about working with President Barack Obama, to which Biden responded, without hesitation: “our lunches together.”
Notably, Biden said of Obama, “When you see another woman or man under enormous pressure, and you watch them react in the way Barack acts, it generates nothing but admiration. He’s the brightest president I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve served with eight.”
The final question, from McAndrew, unraveled what Biden called “the passion of my life.”
Biden’s son, Beau, a Penn graduate, died in 2015 after battling brain cancer. The Cancer Moonshot—to accelerate cancer research and make more therapies available to more patients, while also improving the ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage—was announced by President Obama during his last State of the Union address. He charged Biden to lead the effort, and just days later, the vice president was at Penn, touring the Abramson Cancer Center and meeting with the Perelman School of Medicine’s Carl June.
“The thing that I hope I’ve objected, is the urgency of now,” Biden said, looking at McAndrew. “This courageous doc is going to have, and he already has, and I’m not being solicitous, some of you or someone like you coming up to him, in five years, and saying, ‘Doc, can you give me just one more month?’”
Chatting after the event, McAndrew said it was nothing short of “surreal” listening to Biden talk, let alone get to converse with him directly. “I was like, ‘Am I really standing here, hearing this?’”
It’s a great symbol of the type of exposure and opportunity students have while studying at Penn, he added.
“It’s the kind of place that really takes pride in giving their students access to these types of conversations and this type of engagement,” McAndrew said. “When you come here, you’re going to be part of this amazing conversation and you are going to be privileged enough to stand with giants and ask them amazing questions and see where the conversation goes.”
Homepage photo: Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the University’s Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor, joined University President Amy Gutmann on Thursday, March 29, at Irvine Auditorium for a conversation.
Main story image: Their conversation touched on foreign policy, gun violence, and cancer research. Biden called that last topic “the passion” of his life.