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In 1984, it looked to be Panama’s time. Its long-time dictator, Gen. Omar Torrijos, had been killed in a mysterious plane crash. Military-backed presidents had come and gone. Gen. Manuel Noriega rose to power.
Before his death, Torrijos had promised to hold democratic elections as part of the 1978 treaty, negotiated with President Jimmy Carter, that returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama.
As Gorton tells it, Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s former chief of staff, reminded Noriega of his predecessor’s promise. The general abided, but said he’d need some American help putting together an election and running a candidate — and he didn’t just want Democrats to help. He needed Republicans, too. The consultants’ job was to find an acceptable candidate to run in the election.
Gorton got the call, and he accepted. He and the other Americans were brought in around customs so that no one detected their presence. There, they met Noriega. The general wore a white jumpsuit with sequins and had a dog in his hand, Gorton says.
As a suitable candidate, the consultants eventually settled on Nicky Barletta, a vice president at the World Bank in New York and former Torrijos advisor, who led a military-supported alliance of political parties.
Gorton’s task: Campaign mail. It proved a difficult endeavor in a country with an informal address system. His mail pieces weren’t getting delivered. But Gorton came up with a solution: Find the guy who delivered the electricity bill and follow him.
Barletta eventually won, but not without credible evidence of tainted results. A 1987 U.S. government report said the United States acknowledged that the election results were questionable but that Barletta’s victory was an important step for Panama. The win was seen as a preservation of the military’s power in Panama. But only a year later, after Barletta sought an investigation into the killing of a Noriega critic, the president was forced out of office by the general, according to the report.
Gorton’s work had again brought him into the middle of historical controversy. Five years after the election, United States troops invaded Panama and, in an armed struggle, captured Noriega. He was brought to the United States, where he was convicted and imprisoned on charges of cocaine trafficking and money laundering.
He was plugged in, attached, tied to news reports and telephones. His workaholic tendencies flared. With a foothold again in politics and influence, Gorton worked zealously, frequently managing several candidates at the same time.
That was the case in 1983, when Gorton ran around Election Central at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego, checking in on his several dogs in the race. That night, a friend introduced George to Terry Barlin, a San Diego lobbyist.
“He certainly did not know who I was, but I certainly had heard of the famous George Gorton — George was sort of the man of the town,” she says.
He asked her out that night. They dated for a while, and didn’t date for a while. He got engaged to someone else. Barlin decided she didn’t want to let him go, and she didn’t. He broke off his engagement with the other woman.
Gorton and Barlin launched a business partnership, a consultancy for companies seeking permission from the city or state to do business there. They were swamped. And in love — they married in 1985 and she added Gorton to her last name.
Gorton realized he made 70 percent of his money in even-numbered years. He left that other 30 percent behind to travel the world.
They’d travel by whim, choosing their next destination based on the list at the airport of the departing flights that day. They were one-suitcase free spirits, disconnected from the quotidian worries of political consulting, the which-suit-to-wear, what-tie-goes-with-this questions. They sought the next great spot to swim, the next locale where government and law enforcement were thin and passion was thick.
“Eighty-five was magic,” Gorton says, “drifting from skinny-dipping hole to skinny-dipping hole.”
Where in San Diego, Gorton was plugged in to his calendar and the latest gadgets, on vacation, he moved slowly. If he had a letter to mail, it would take the better part of the morning to get into town. In San Diego, running that errand would take four-and-a-half minutes, he jokes.
The change of pace pervaded even Gorton’s thoughts. He had been, even halfway across the world, wondering and worrying about his work back in the United States. But in Thailand, he learned to stop his mind, to quiet the frenetic internal chatter that he said was wasting his mental energy.
One night, as the couple walked on the sand on Koh Samui, they noticed a monkey, tethered to a platform. The monkey swooped down and picked up a cat. The two animals looked at each other, extended their paws to acquaint themselves with each other.
And that was the moment Gorton’s spiritual life came to the surface.
“I wish I had time to sit here and watch this,” Gorton thought to himself. He realized he had nothing but time for months.