That was a good and generous thing that former vice president Al Gore did for his party. By stepping aside from the 2004 presidential race, he has allowed the Democratic Party to go ahead without the burden of its unhappy past and seek a clearer path to the future.

There is a lesson here for Trent Lott -- if he is of a mind to heed it.

White House officials were openly hoping that Gore would run again -- just as Democrats ardently hope that Lott will hold on to his position as Senate majority leader, the post to which he was elected last month, before setting off a firestorm with his remarks at the Strom Thurmond birthday party.

A look at the two cases is instructive.

For a number of reasons, Gore was in a powerful position to claim the 2004 Democratic nomination. He had been given the honor once before and had done almost everything to make his fellow partisans think he had delivered, winning the popular vote and losing the electoral majority only because of a disputed tally in Florida and what could be viewed as a partisan verdict in the Supreme Court.

Democratic voters outside the Capital Beltway made Gore the early favorite for 2004 -- in part because none of his rivals had great standing and in part because they resented the way the press had turned against him, finding him guilty, as Republicans charged, of rampant insincerity.

It is entirely possible that Gore could have exploited those antagonisms to convince voters in the 2004 primaries that if they abandoned him they would be handing their foes an undeserved victory.

But Gore rose above that and looked at the larger picture, subordinating his personal ambition to what he rightly saw as the needs of his party at this moment of history. The key moment in his interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS's "60 Minutes" came when he acknowledged that "a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would in some measure distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about. . . . The last campaign was an extremely difficult one. And while I have the energy and drive to go out there and do it again, I think that there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by that -- who felt like, 'Okay, I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm, frankly, sensitive to that -- to that feeling."

That is a remarkably detached and perceptive statement. What Gore knows is that his party was exhausted, not just by the last campaign but by the traumas of the Clinton years, by the necessity to defend the indefensible in the conduct of the former president. That weariness is the principal reason Gore came up short against Bush in 2000, and his candidacy in 2004 would inevitably revive all those controversies of the past.

Now consider Trent Lott. His claim to the majority leadership rests on the fact that he has won the position before, that under his leadership Republicans maintained their Senate control (although the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords robbed them of the fruits of victory for a time) and that none of his possible replacements is of such commanding stature as to have a preemptive claim to the job. And Lott also can see himself as the victim of efforts by political opponents and elements of the press to tear down his reputation.

But the indelible fact is that Lott's fateful remarks, decrying the defeat of Thurmond as a segregationist presidential candidate in 1948, reminded his party and the country of Lott's persistent links to the racially stained "southern strategy" of the 1960s and '70s, a strategy that was designed to convert diehard opponents of civil rights and racial integration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Lott was one of the symbols and the agents of that strategy, leaving his position as the top aide to a segregationist Democratic chairman of the House Rules Committee to take his old boss's seat in 1972 as a Republican. And a multitude of well-documented speeches and votes since then demonstrates Lott's adherence to that kind of politics.

Today, one can say, paraphrasing Gore, that while Lott has "the energy and drive to go out there and do it again . . . there are a lot of people within the Republican Party who feel exhausted" from defending what is indefensible in the party's past. They are people who, as Gore might put it, say of Lott's latest fiasco, "I don't want to go through that again."

Al Gore has demonstrated the valor of stepping aside in the interest of history. Does Trent Lott have the character to match that gesture?