Speaking to University of Utah students, Joe Biden offers no clarity about whether he’ll pursue another presidential run

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, as part of the MUSE (My U Signature Experience) Project, a university presidential initiative meant to enrich undergraduate education across the U.

Former Vice President Joe Biden told a packed house at the University of Utah on Thursday that he’s “found his purpose” in life but didn’t reveal whether that includes another presidential run.

The roughly hourlong question-and-answer session will likely be Biden’s final public appearance of the year, and he used it to speak about his upbringing, his first years in politics and the 2015 death of his son, Beau.

During his illness, Beau Biden made his father promise not to let grief rob him of purpose in life. The vow — echoed in the title of Joe Biden’s new memoir, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” — was interpreted by some as an indication that the longtime U.S. senator from Delaware would launch a Democratic bid for the nation’s highest office.

But Biden said the promise was simply about staying “engaged in the things that animate your life.” Since his son died of brain cancer, Biden said he’s tried to live up to that goal.

"For the first year and a half, there wasn’t a day I woke up and I didn’t ask myself ... ‘Is he proud of me? Is he proud that I am staying engaged?’ " Biden said.

The moderator, professor Mark Matheson, said he opted not to question Biden about a 2020 presidential run because he wanted to focus on values and human issues rather than politics. The decision to sidestep the issue was made voluntarily, Matheson said, and Biden’s visit was not conditioned on it.

The former vice president has been on tour promoting his new book and has been dropping occasional comments about his political future along the way. At an event earlier this month in Montana, Biden labeled himself the most qualified person in the country to be president, the Associated Press reported.

The AP has also reported that Biden will convene with his family members over the holidays as he considers a possible presidential campaign. Biden, 76, has already run twice for the post and has said he won’t make a decision about a third bid until January.

Biden's appearance to a capacity crowd in the 1,800-seat Kingsbury Hall was part of the university's MUSE (My "U" Signature Experience) Project, which plans events for student enrichment.

The former vice president was warmly received by the Salt Lake City crowd, and he said he was delighted to be back in Utah, although he quipped that “I hate getting off at the airport without my skis.”

Mary Beckerle, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, introduced Biden and spoke glowingly of the former vice president's support of cancer research. Beckerle served on Biden's Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel, a group that crafted recommendations for making rapid advancements in cancer diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

“Joe Biden is a person of hope in all-caps,” Beckerle said. “He sees where we are now, and he sees where we could be in the future.”

Biden called himself a "great admirer of the LDS" and said one of his greatest honors was spending an afternoon with 11 of the 12 apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He also expressed respect for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who's now working as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Biden described Huntsman as “the ballast — and I mean ballast — in Russia right now, with that thug Putin.”

He also shared the story of his decision to become former President Barack Obama’s running mate, saying he initially leaned against joining the ticket but changed his tune after speaking with his family.

During the family meeting, Biden's elderly mother began by reminding him of times when he'd shown a commitment to racial justice and rooting out intolerance before delivering her punchline: "Honey, the first African American in American history that has a chance to be president of the United States says he needs you to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Florida. And you told him no, honey?"

The crowd erupted in laughter.

“And that’s when I decided,” Biden continued. “It turned out to be the best decision my family ever made for me.”

During Thursday’s event, Matheson revealed that Biden had waived his speaking fee for the U. appearance, although he wouldn’t disclose what the honorarium would’ve been.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Ambassador Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.