Who ever thought that praising your political opponent’s daughter would get you called a “McCarthyite” and “not a good man?”

Well, John Kerry, who last week had the audacity to applaud Dick Cheney for accepting his lesbian daughter Mary for “who she was born as,” has conservatives seething.

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist William Safire trashed Kerry in a column titled “The Lowest Blow.” Lynne Cheney called Kerry’s statement a “cheap and tawdry political trick.” Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a FOX News contributor, asked, “Was John Kerry born a shameless and ruthless opportunist, or did he choose to become one?” and went on to chastise “John Kerry’s McCarthyism.” Only in the mind of a bigot is the mere mention of someone’s homosexuality a “low blow” or the moral equivalent of tarring her with communist sympathies.

We can debate the motives behind John Kerry’s utterance until the cows come home, but why both Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, decided to bring up Mary Cheney is a minutia compared to the conservative reaction. For Republicans in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, gays have usually been a nebulous presence on the periphery of American life. It has always been easy to imagine them as leather freaks or drag queens. That most gay people look like Mary Cheney — that is, no different from straight people — is unsettling, especially when you advocate that such people not enjoy equal rights.

It has been equal parts amusing and sickening to watch conservatives go to such great lengths in order to avoid the painful inevitability of justifying their support for an administration that seeks to discriminate against millions of individuals, one of whom just happens to be their own vice president’s daughter.

That mentioning Mary Cheney’s sexuality somehow invades her privacy, as some Republicans allege, is preposterous. Mary Cheney is openly gay and directs her father’s re-election effort. Before joining her father’s 2000 campaign, she was the Coors Brewing Company liaison to the gay and lesbian community. As a member of the advisory board of the pro-gay Republican Unity Coalition, she said in a 2002 public statement, “We can make sexual orientation a non-issue for the Republican Party, and we can help achieve equality for all gay and lesbian Americans.” After the vice presidential debate two weeks ago, she came up on stage with her partner Heather Poe to congratulate her father before millions of viewers. In August, she sat in the VIP box at the Republican National Convention, again with her partner, again before millions of viewers.

After the debate, Cheney had the nerve to proclaim that Kerry “will do and say anything to get elected.” This from a man who last month equated voting for Kerry with wishing another terrorist attack upon the United States, warning us against making “the wrong choice” because it would ensure that “we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” What class.

Granted, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill’s reference to Mary Cheney as “fair game” speaks to the potential political motivations behind Kerry’s remark. Some have even accused the Kerry ticket of cynically appealing to homophobia; their repeated invocations of Mary Cheney’s lesbianism meant to remind conservative Bush supporters that the vice president’s daughter is one of those dastardly homosexuals. We have no way of judging Kerry’s motives; I happen to believe the controversial statement was off the cuff. But all the better that anti-gay individuals understand that it is not just some vague notion of “gays” they’re hurting, but people like Mary Cheney. People just like themselves.

And so what if John Kerry “used” Mary Cheney for political purposes? What about the policies of this administration, which have in every sense of the word “used” millions of gay people as a wedge issue to shore up the evangelical base of the Republican Party? Talk about a “cheap and tawdry political trick.”

When Bob Schieffer asked the candidates about their wives, he was implicitly referring to the fact that both men are heterosexual. The question was pointless and a waste of time, but no one considered it offensive. Yet somehow, John Kerry’s statement that Mary Cheney’s being a lesbian is not abnormal (contra the belief of many Republicans) has made the vice president “a very angry father” and his wife Lynne “a pretty indignant mom.” Perhaps if the Kerry campaign were as on-message as the folks writing the Cheneys’ talking points, the senator from Massachusetts would be faring better in the polls.

This latest tete-a-tete underscores what has long been a pattern of hypocrisy in Republican circles with regard to homosexuality. Where were the Cheneys this past August, when, logically asked if Mary Cheney was a “selfish hedonist” in response to his assertion that homosexuality amounted to “selfish hedonism,” Illinois Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes asserted, “Of course she is”? Where were the Cheneys, Safire and Kristol when Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum compared gay sex to bestiality? Why is the right’s fervor raised only when someone — of course, a Democrat — has something actually nice to say about gay people?

Earlier this week, conservative eminence Robert Novak wrote that Kerry’s invoking Mary Cheney “sounded like an effort to impute hypocrisy on the part of an opponent seeking to ban gay marriage.” John Kerry’s imputation, intended or not, was entirely correct. The right just doesn’t want to face up to it.

James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.