LESS than two weeks after one of the high points of his premiership, the G20 summit, Gordon Brown finds himself caught up in a scandal that encapsulates the grubbiest side of politics. Yet like all truly memorable political scandals, the Damian McBride email furore is important for what it reveals about the culture at the heart of government, and about the enduring psychological flaws of the man the smears were meant to benefit.
That man -- the Prime Minister -- is, in the process, looking increasingly like the Richard Nixon of British politics.
Gordon Brown's admirers have long claimed that he resembled one of the iconic American presidents of the last century: as recently as the G20 jamboree, his aides were presenting him as the new Franklin D Roosevelt, father of the New Deal. The true comparison is with a very different 20th-century president: another brooding, brilliant man, a man of great brains and vision but whose gnawing insecurities, bare-knuckle instincts and taste for dirty tricks were to bring him down.
Thanks to films such as the brilliant Frost/Nixon, Richard Nixon is remembered today as one of the worst presidents in American history. He was the driving figure behind the illegal breakin and surveillance of his opponents' headquarters in the Watergate complex, and a twisted paranoiac whose suspicions reached such depths that he even taped his own Oval Office conversations, providing damning evidence for his accusers.
Yet before the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Nixon was one of the most popular leaders in American history, a humble Quaker who had made himself the greatest statesman of his age, reaching out to his country's enemies, making a historic trip to China and signing a disarmament deal with the Russians inside the Kremlin itself.
Like our current Prime Minister, he was widely regarded as a talented and bookish man, an intellectual raised in an atmosphere of pious, progressive Christianity, hamstrung only by his awkwardness and reserve in front of the cameras.
Sadly for Mr Brown, the parallels do not end there. When Nixon lost the 1960 election to the rich Boston playboy John F Kennedy, he spent years smouldering with jealousy -- just as Mr Brown seethed with envy after Tony Blair snatched the Labour leadership in 1994.
In both cases, disappointment left a deep scar that never really healed.
By then Nixon already had the reputation for brutal political campaigning, based on two bruising elections in California in the late 1940s, yet he was never able to live with defeat. As a thin- skinned poor boy made good, he hated the thought of losing out to "those people from the elite", the "Harvard sons of bitches" he hated so much. And the fact that Kennedy's narrow victory came after allegations of massive voting fraud in Texas and Illinois only made the result harder to take -- and propelled Nixon further down the path to paranoia.
Nixon, in an attempt to make sure he never suffered again, surrounded himself with thuggish aides who would stop at nothing to confound their master's rivals. Brown, too, has long surrounded himself with hand-picked cronies notable largely for their aggression and ruthlessness.
Nixon had political bruisers like Charles Colson, who hired truck drivers to beat up peace demonstrators, planned to firebomb unfriendly think tanks and boasted that he would drive over his own grandmother to get Nixon re-elected. Mr Brown's own Charlie -- Whelan, the spin doctor forced to quit 10 years ago after briefing against Peter Mandelson -- was not quite as physically aggressive. …