Hypocrisy 101

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Our president got to the White House despite a blizzard of nasty cocaine jokes from late-night comics and other pundits who lampooned the hard-drinking past of George "D.W.I." Bush. College students should be identifying with Bush. Like the commander-in-chief, they project to certain segments of society the image of reforming party animals groping for respectable adulthood.

But students aren't identifying with Bush. Many are furious with him.

Campus activists across the country are mobilizing for fall protests against a year-old requirement that applicants for federal financial aid disclose if they have "ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?"

For the final months of the Clinton presidency, smart collegians left Question 35 blank on student aid forms. Clintonites didn't impose upon those who skipped the question a congressional ban on grant, loan or work-study benefits.

Bush education officials have reversed the de facto Clinton policy. Appointees of President Bush are interpreting a non-answer about drugs to be an admission of use, much like the comics did to Candidate Bush.

During the presidential race, news reporters couldn't nail down rumors of Bush's youthful fondness for "blow" and the candidate wouldn't confirm or deny the coke rumors. Bush handlers spun the awkward situation into a principled stand by their man against a prying, sensation-seeking news media.

Now, however, the Bush administration is robustly enforcing the no-aid-for-druggies rule against those who refuse to answer the aid-form question. Many students consider the question an invasion of privacy, much like the Bush campaign did. And they find it irrelevant to whether they should get help with their educational expenses.

"Students are going crazy over this," said Steven Silverman, campus coordinator for the Drug Reform Coordination Network in Washington, D.C. "It's a purely political question, in a way. It has nothing to do with need."

Students want only a federal loan. Bush wanted to run the federal government.

Up to 60,000 students could lose their eligibility during the 2001-02 academic year due to prior drug offenses or their refusal to answer, according to projections by Silverman's group. Fewer than 10,000 lost out last year.

"Drug use is the only so-called crime that disqualifies people for financial aid," said Matt Mazzuckelli, 20, who enters his third year at New College in Sarasota this fall.

The blacklist makes for some curious sights on the frontlines of the government's oft-misfiring "war on drugs."

The Wall Street Journal found a Massachusetts jail where most inmates in a writing class taught through a local community college were enrolled with tuition aid. The class included two child molesters, a thief and several violent offenders. A crack dealer, considered an excellent prospect for rehabilitation, was prevented from enrolling because he couldn't get federal help with the $247 tuition.

This much hypocrisy — alcohol-related crimes, of course, won't get you kicked out of the tuition-aid line — was too much for John Hlinko.

Hlinko is a sort of P. T. Barnum of political protest on the Internet. In May, the 34-year-old California satirist crowned himself "czar" of a new cyber-protest group called Students for a Drug-Free White House.

On the group's Web site, www.justsay blow.com, Hlinko calls on W. to 'fess up or get off the public payroll: "President Bush, if you deny federal funds to students who won't talk about their drug histories, it's only fair that you forgo your federal salary until you are willing to come clean with your own drug past."

Web visitors agreeing with the statement are invited to sign a cyber-petition. In three weeks, Hlinko collected 5,000 signatures.

"It's a pretty narrow issue and, with all of the college kids out for the summer, I was shocked that we got more than a few hundred," said Hlinko, who worked in investment banking before taking a master's degree in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Hlinko said personal experience informed his little protest of Bush policy.

"First of all, if it wasn't for financial aid, there's no way in hell I would have gotten through college and grad school," he told the Weekly Planet. "So, it pissed me off from that sense." Hlinko said he found it incredible that Bush, of all political leaders, was the one pushing guilt-by-omission. "Is this an April Fool's Joke?" Hlinko said he thought to himself. The wheels started turning. The comedy writer and the campaign manager in him took over. "Let's play on the hypocrisy element, which has the added advantage of being true," Hlinko recalled. "Let's see if we can't add some comedy to it and rope in a whole lot of people to this struggle who might not have really cared about it in the first place."

"Just Say Blow" was launched.

Hlinko said he prefers breaking down defenses to haranguing people. "Once you see them laughing," he said, "then you can start preaching to them a little bit." Many still in school don't have the luxury of simply laughing at Bush's inconsistencies. Hlinko fully endorses the quite serious campaign by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and other college organizations to overturn the law.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has filed legislation to give financial-aid officers more discretion to evaluate the drug convictions of student applicants.

"This would allow some people, who may have had difficulties with drugs but are now taking steps to improve their lives by pursuing a higher education, to continue to be eligible for aid," Frank said at a recent news conference. "This will help ensure that people in low- to moderate-income families — who really need the aid — are not treated unfairly."

With Frank at the news conference were representatives from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the U.S. Student Association.

H.R. 786 has more than 40 co-sponsors, said Frank press secretary Peter Kovar. As of June 8, no co-sponsors were from Florida.

Christy Stefadouros, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Tarpon Springs), said her boss has yet to review Frank's bill, which she termed "controversial."

Stefadouros said Bikirakis aides have logged in just three form letters of support for the Frank bill.

Mazzuckelli, president of the New College chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, promised that will change. Petitions to Congress and registration of student voters are at the top of the group's political agenda when classes resume in September, he said. "What we're seeing from the war on drugs are some disturbing trends over the last, say, 10 years," said Mazzuckelli, whose academic concentration is economics. "Funding for higher education has gone down while funding for prisons has gone up. In fact, the decrease in higher ed is just about the same amount as the increase for prison construction." Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

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