Drawing inspiration from the nation's efforts in the 1960s to send a man to the moon, President Clinton pledged during a Morgan State University commencement address yesterday that U.S. scientists would devise a vaccine within a decade to prevent people from becoming infected with the AIDS virus.
"There are no guarantees," Clinton told 850 degree recipients and several thousand enthusiastic well-wishers gathered at the North Baltimore campus. "It will take energy and focus and demand great effort from our greatest minds.
"But with the strides of recent years, it is no longer a question of whether we can develop an AIDS vaccine: it is simply a question of when," he said.
The president said he would create a new national center for AIDS vaccine research within the National Institutes of Health, the primary federal agency for medical research in Bethesda. In addition, he said that he would urge leaders of other industrialized nations and major pharmaceutical companies to devote their energies and resources to the same end.
Yesterday's announcement gives political support to the still-struggling effort to prevent the infectious disease, which has caused a worldwide epidemic.
The arrival of the president's motorcade at the back of the VIP platform at about a minute past 10 a.m. yesterday set the crowd abuzz. Graduates waved miniature flags with campus colors of orange and blue.
Clinton said he spoke at Morgan State as a tribute to the historically black university's leading role in educating African-Americans in science and engineering.
"The last 10 years have been a decade of unprecedented aspiration and fulfillment for our university," said Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the university's finest hour."
At times, Clinton spoke in Kennedyesque cadences, and even invoked the president who served as an early inspiration for him.
"Thirty-six years ago, President Kennedy looked to the heavens and proclaimed that the flag of peace and democracy, not war and tyranny, must be the first to be planted on the moon. He gave us a goal of reaching the moon, and we achieved it ahead of time," Clinton said.
"Today, here, I ask you simply to imagine that new century, full of its promise, molded by science, shaped by technology, powered by knowledge," Clinton said.
Morgan State awarded honorary degrees to Clinton; Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a noted heart surgeon at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, a Morgan graduate.
Clinton delivered his talk surrounded by much of the state's political establishment, including U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; Gov. Parris N. Glendening; U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings; Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals; and Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Despite his knee injury, which still requires him to walk with the aid of a cane, Clinton looked at ease during the ceremony. Clinton sang emphatically with the university choir -- even belting out the words to Morgan State's alma mater.
"I think it's moving for the graduates to see the president of the United States come in and speak to them," said Shirley Banks-Legions, 50, of Philadelphia, as she watched her son, Churchill Banks, receive a master's degree in architecture.
Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, said, "As he begins to look at his lasting legacy, I think his very top item is race relations. That's the most important new frontier for us to cross."
During three commencement addresses this spring, Clinton appears to be trying to sketch out the philosophical legacy of his second administration. At subsequent graduations, he will discuss racial conciliation and how best America can foster peace after the close of the Cold War. Yesterday, however, Clinton talked about the importance of shifting from an atomic or nuclear era to one dominated by the study of the molecule.
"In science, if the last 50 years were the age of physics, the next 50 years will be the age of biology," Clinton said. "Let us make an AIDS vaccine its first great triumph."
Next year's budget allocates $148 million for acquired immune deficiency syndrome vaccine research, said Sandy Thurman, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. While that represents a 33 percent increase above the level of federal funds for the vaccine two years ago, Clinton's announcement yesterday does not include additional money.
For the future, Clinton set out what he said were four BTC "guideposts" against which to measure scientific advances.