Ah, but the road to enlightenment is rocky: Witness the silly tempest over John McCain's sensible assertion that he can sometimes spot a gay man.

Picture McCain, stopping in at Calef's Country Store in Barrington, N.H., to buy a block of cheddar cheese. He had just been chatting, as he often does, with reporters on his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. McCain had allowed as how "he had served in the Navy with many gays, although they had not told him of their sexual orientation," as The Post reported it.

The Post continued, "In the store, he was asked how he knew." McCain answered: "Well, I think we know by behavior and by attitudes. I think that it's clear to some of us when some people have that lifestyle."

In other words, McCain said--in answer to a dumb question--that we can sometimes tell when people are gay. He didn't snarl epithets. He didn't snicker about limp-wristed men. He just said that sometimes you can tell. This is so commonly understood to be true that there is a slang word for it: "gaydar" (gay radar).

Unhappily for McCain, common understanding is no defense on matters homosexual--a topic on which the nation is stuck halfway toward enlightenment. As we move haltingly between the blindness and insensitivity with which we began, and the understanding and fair-mindedness we will someday attain, there is danger behind every shadow. Anything anyone says that has any juice in it at all is guaranteed to make someone mad.

The Post reporter, correctly sensing this, took it and ran. He called the communications director at a gay political group here and told him of McCain's self-asserted gaydar. The fellow was happy to do his part. McCain "has one up on me, because I can't tell just by behavior and attitudes," said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. "He is clearly stereotyping based on mannerisms. This is a form of prejudice and illustrates the struggle that gay people face."

The next day, The Post tucked all of this under the headline, "McCain Says He Can Identify Gays by Behavior, Attitudes." Which makes you wonder whether we will soon be seeing a headline telling us that "Bradley Says Blacks Outnumber Whites in NBA." Or "Bush Says Texans Identifiable by Drawl."

As it happens, The Post story had a saving grace: The reporter called another source, Kevin Ivers, public affairs director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group. Ivers had the good sense to say, "If there's a gay person anywhere who says they can't walk into a room and tell who some of the gay people are, they're lying."

Thank goodness for Ivers, who also noted that McCain's central point, by the way, had been quite thoughtful. Witness what McCain said (again, according to The Post) just after the part about sometimes being able to tell: "But I didn't pursue it, and I wouldn't pursue it, and I wouldn't pursue it today. . . . That, to me, was something--and still is something--that is private. It's very different from a manifestation of that behavior in the line of duty."

This is a sound view--if only McCain had stuck with it. Unhappily, by the time he appeared on the "Today" show the day after The Post piece, he'd gone mushy. "The main way I knew," he said, was that people told him after they left the Navy.

I'd give a lot to have seen McCain respond to Katie Couric by saying, "of course you can tell that some people are gay. You know it, and I know it. Everybody knows it. Some people want you to know that they're gay. This is part of what the gay rights movement has been about: People are no longer willing to hide who they are."

Heaven knows we could use a little common-sense conversation on gay rights, a subject bound to play a still larger role in this presidential campaign. The Supreme Court announced the other day it will hear arguments on the case in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts can't bar gay troop leaders. A decision is expected by June.

Whatever the court decides, there's no doubt where we're headed. More forthrightness from candidates and fewer goofy stories from the press could help us get there faster.