John Leo
Old-fashioned crimes -- perjury, obstruction of justice and illegal fund-raising -- may draw lots of yawns in Washington today, but there's a new offense that the town takes with great seriousness: insensitivity.

Four nominees for the Bush Cabinet have been indicted by a jury of Democratic politicians and columnists for senstivity failures: Gail Norton, for arguing (somewhat murkily) that the cause of states' rights lost a lot when it allied itself with the cause of slavery; Donald Rumsfeld, for neglecting to criticize President Nixon during one of Nixon's bigoted rants at the White House; Christie Whitman, for allowing herself to be photographed smiling while frisking a black suspect; and John Ashcroft for a long list of sensitivity violations.

The use of insensitivity as a political standard comes from America's campus culture. In various college codes, offenses have included "insensitivity to the experiences of women," "attitudes" about gays that develop into "beliefs" and "disrespectful facial expressions." This is the stuff of satire, but it is also a very effective tool of intimidation.

Fuzzy but enforceable standards keep everyone off-balance because nobody really knows what constitutes a sensitivity violation. Because hurt feelings are proof that an offense has occurred, everyone accused is already guilty. Better to keep your head down and accept the local political orthodoxy.

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, sees where this is going. "If Ashcroft's opponents prevail," he writes, "national politics will take on the cast of campus debates on race. It will become out of bounds, essentially, to disagree with liberals: Conservatives are offensive to black groups, therefore they are insensitive, therefore they are unfit for office."

John Ashcroft, of course, has been the main target. Though Ashcroft did not cover himself in glory by opposing Judge Ronnie White and calling him "pro-criminal," there is zero evidence on the table of racist intent. His opposition may have had more to do with law-and-order politics in a tough election. Or perhaps it was a payback for White's key role, as a state legislator, in frustrating Gov. Ashcroft's proposed law to restrict abortion.

No matter. For two months now the Democrats have talked about nothing but race, so Ashcroft's opposition must have been racial. Apart from heavy insinuations by Ted Kennedy, important Democrats are willing to skip the charge of racism and simply indict Ashcroft for the broad new crime of insensitivity.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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