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Ballot Box: Spreading Out the Blame for Teen Drug Use

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William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education who is one of Bob Dole's leading campaign advisers, says President Clinton should not shoulder total blame for the rise in teenage drug use.

But he also says Mr. Clinton has given the issue short shrift till recently.

Mr. Bennett's remarks on a recent broadcast of "This Week with David Brinkley" came as Mr. Dole, the Republican presidential nominee, has made criticism of Mr. Clinton's crime- and drug-prevention strategy a staple of his campaign.

Mr. Bennett, who became the nation's first "drug czar" under President Bush and whose Book of Virtues was a best seller, has spent the past several years arguing that the nation is suffering from a decline in its culture.

On Mr. Brinkley's ABC-TV program, Mr. Bennett said "culture is more important than politics" in affecting drug use.

While Mr. Bennett said both parties carry some responsibility for drug use among teenagers, he said Mr. Clinton has abandoned the bully pulpit on the issue.

"What I think is essential is that the president take this issue seriously," the former secretary of education said. "We had that in the 1980's. I don't think we've had that with Bill Clinton until very recently."

President Clinton's drug czar, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, squeezed in the point that presidential speeches and proclamations may not carry a lot of sway with teenagers who abuse drugs, despite the campaign-season urge to pin blame or credit for everything on the sitting president.

"There is an awful lot of election-year twaddle going on right now," Gen. McCaffrey said.

A 50-member steering group of former Department of Education officials, professors, teachers, lobbyists, and policy experts is working to connect the Dole campaign with grassroots voters.

The Educators for Dole Coalition, which is based here, has been together for about five months.

It sprang up because some of its organizers saw a need for the former Kansas senator's campaign to hear from local educators and parents on such issues as school choice, parental rights, and school prayer.

"Usually in an election the political juices flow from Washington outward. This is exactly the opposite," said Laura Genero, a spokeswoman for the group. She worked in the Department of Education under President Bush.

In addition to networking with local activists, the Educators for Dole Coalition offers policy ideas to the campaign, provides surrogates to speak on behalf of the campaign at Washington events, and handles requests from schools for visits from Mr. Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp.

In the weeks before the election, the group is planning events on school choice and education reform around the country.

Among its members are John Fonte, a policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute; Cathy McMichael, the group's chairwoman, who is the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association; and Milton Bins, a former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Ms. Genero said the coalition is not discouraged by polls showing that voters trust President Clinton more than Mr. Dole on education.

"What we have here are people who have a set of principles, and the polls don't mean anything to them," Ms. Genero said. "We're helping these people move their agenda forward, and that's what's important to us."

Chelsea Clinton, the president's 17-year-old daughter, was an increasingly familiar face on the campaign trail throughout the summer. But now that school is in session, her campaign schedule is unclear.

Neel Lattimore, the press secretary for Hillary Rodham Clinton, said no time has been scheduled for Chelsea to join the campaign as the election nears.

But "I wouldn't be surprised" if she did, he added.

"Being a senior in high school, with all of the extracurricular activities, she may or may not" campaign alongside her father, Mr. Lattimore said.

Chelsea Clinton is enrolled at Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington. She joined Mr. Clinton's train trip from Huntington, W.Va., to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. She then joined the family on a campaign bus ride through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee before stopping in Arkansas.

As of mid-September, Chelsea had not missed any days of school, Mr. Lattimore said. But should the first daughter stump this fall for her father, he said, she'll negotiate an excused absence.

—MARK PITSCH federal@epe.org

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