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Part one of a two-part series. Read part two.

Monday, June 23, 2008 | George Gorton prepared for death.

He was on the run from the terror of his diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. He reached a small village on Mexico’s Caribbean coast called Tulum, the site of ancient ruins where the Mayans were thought to have worshiped the Declining God, and tried to conquer that terror.

What the doctor had told him brought the pieces together into an unmanageable truth: the shaking hands, the dull aches, the tingling lips, the inexplicable dread of answering the door for the pizza guy.

A panicked Gorton became consumed with the notion that he was in the last decade of his life.

He fled to Yucatan: The sixties hipster turned modern-day kingmaker, always with a mustache, always with a joke, stout like the high school wrestler he used to be. And so he prayed. He fasted. He meditated and did yoga. He tried to come to terms with death, death by debilitating disease.

He had a life’s worth of experiences to draw on. He’d clawed back from Watergate and plotted the triumphs of San Diego’s most famous politician, a man who’d be mayor, senator, governor and even presidential candidate, Pete Wilson. He’d become the international political consultant extraordinaire, very secretly pulling the strings in some of the world’s youngest democracies, invisibly sweeping Russian President Boris Yeltsin across the finish line and quietly greeting Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to plot the Central American nation’s future.

He’d authored the real-life story that transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger from a movie star into a political force. Along the way, he helped orchestrate some of politics’ most divisive campaigns: Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection bid and the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which denied social services to illegal immigrants.  

And when he wasn’t hoisting others into positions of extreme power, he was off in some hidden corner of the world, learning Toltec traditions in Teotihuacan or Buddhism in Thailand.

But this trip to Mexico in 1997 was different.

“I more than resigned myself to Parkinson’s,” he says. “I made a decision that I was going to have more fun dying than anybody had before.”

Only, he didn’t get worse, like most people with Parkinson’s do. More than a decade later, the sharp, cutting pain in his face and arms has dulled. In the past year, his gregariousness has returned. He recently wowed himself by holding conversation all night at a dinner party. He watched his own hands wield chopsticks for the first time in years.

The 61-year-old Gorton has even agreed to work on a 2010 ballot initiative. His fear of death has subsided.

He wonders, too, if he even has traditional Parkinson’s. He’s had creeping suspicions that he was poisoned in Russia.

One of the President’s Men | President Richard Nixon geared up for his 1972 reelection underneath a new reality. Youth was king in politics. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in response to the Vietnam War, and the Republican Party worried it would lose out on the youth vote.

A 20-something San Diego State alumnus with long hair, a Fu Manchu and a coy smile was just the guy to serve as national college director for the Committee to Reelect the President.

Gorton already had a history of pulling off such youth campaigns at the time, wooing the campus women to support his candidate in a New York senate race and getting them, in turn, to woo the campus men. Later, he held keg parties on the Mission Beach boardwalk to promote Pete Wilson’s successful first run for San Diego mayor.

For Nixon, Gorton oversaw campaign staffers in 38 states. Among his tasks: learn more about antiwar activists that were holding a peace vigil in front of the White House and find out if there were plans for violent protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami.

He paid Theodore Brill, a 20-year-old George Washington University student, $150 a week to go undercover and infiltrate the group. The payments to Brill were reportedly made in cash and checks from Gorton’s personal account and weren’t included in campaign disclosures.

Along the campaign trail, fellow staffers handed Gorton sheets of paper folded in half with his name on the bottom. That way, he could sign them, authorize something, and never know what it was.

Nixon won the 1972 election with Gorton’s help. He got a job in the administration. His dreams of becoming a senator, governor or even president seemed to be falling into place.

Then Watergate hit.

The story started with the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and unfolded into a wider scandal that left a permanent mark on American politics. By 1973, there had already been criminal convictions, though Nixon wouldn’t resign for another year and a half.

Watergate’s dark pall finally spread directly to Gorton in March 1973 when he got a call from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

The front-page story that ran on March 11 titled “GW Student Spied for GOP,” under the famous byline of Woodward and Carl Bernstein named the 25-year-old Gorton as the man who hired and paid a local student to spy on activists.

“Spying is a funny way to describe” what Brill did, Gorton told the Post, but admitted the clandestine operation was the only way to get information on the activists. “It was a part of my job to know what all of youth was thinking,” Gorton tried to convince Woodward.

Brill said he was fired by Gorton two days after the original news of the Watergate break-in broke.

Brill’s fraternity brother told the newspaper that Brill was paid James Bond-style. Once, he was told to meet a woman with a red dress, a white carnation and a newspaper to be paid. Another time, he was told to go to a bookstore, where he would be handed a book with payment inside. Both Brill and Gorton denied this account.

Woodward and Bernstein’s story vaporized Gorton’s golden resume.

Five days later, the Washington Post published an editorial that, as Gorton puts it, “said I was corrupting America’s youth.”

The Department of the Interior fired him a month and a half later because of the “adverse publicity” surrounding his campaign role. The headline of the front-page Washington Post story the next day: “U.S. Fires GOP Spy’s Paymaster.”

George H.W. Bush, at the time Republican National Committee chairman, held a press conference banishing Gorton from party headquarters and the party itself, Gorton says.

At the time, the events of the 1972 election didn’t even seem real. “We all joked that the attorney general would be good company if we went to jail,” Gorton says now. “Well, the fucking attorney general went to jail.”

He was never fined or charged for his activities on the Nixon campaign. But it wasn’t just his career that was in shambles. His girlfriend dumped him. His friends disappeared. He grew ashamed of himself. “I thought of myself as a shady character,” he says. It began a downward spiral that didn’t end for years.

“It was,” he says, “a very dark period of my life.”

Heading Back to San Diego | Dishonored in Washington, Gorton limped out to the opposite corner of the country.

He worked odd jobs, interning under an 18-year-old boss at HomeFederal Savings and Loan. Gorton hawked a recording of the Winnie the Pooh song sung by Mike Curb, who would eventually become the state lieutenant governor, to radio stations.

And he slunk around town, burdened by his conscience.

“The first thing I thought of when I woke up was Watergate,” he says. “The last thing I thought of when I went to sleep was Watergate.”

He scratched his way back into politics, joining Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign as press secretary for his friend Jack Ford, the candidate’s son. A strapping young bachelor, Ford was like a rock star on the campaign trail, drawing fawning fans and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone shirtless and barefoot.

The younger Ford and Gorton returned to San Diego after the election and bought a group of small North County community newspapers that included the Del Mar News-Press. To help them run the paper, they recruited Gorton’s girlfriend, a woman named Susan Golding.

Gorton had a romantic idea of the life of a newspaper owner, one that was quickly shattered by the workaday struggles he faced. “I thought a publisher got to strut and act important,” Gorton says. “But it’s about fixing the typesetter, spending a bunch of money and begging people to do things.”

At the newspaper, the guy who felt maligned by the media from his bout with Watergate now found himself on the other side of the printing press, with a newfound vengeance for ethical journalism.

“We thought we were The New York Times of Del Mar,” he says.

He rejoiced over the little scoops the paper sniffed out, like the time the paper photographed a camp of illegal immigrants living in Del Mar. His enthusiasm mirrored the excitement the cub reporters there had for covering the happenings in North County.

Even as his life brightened, Gorton remained angry inside. He’d inherited his father’s temper. He used anger to manage people, yelling out orders to a room of campaign staffers, only to have to go back to apologize later.

California in the 1970s bred a movement known as est Training, a self-awareness seminar popularized by stars like John Denver and Yoko Ono that taught taking responsibility for one’s life and experiences. Gorton and Golding attended a San Diego installment of the seminar. Skeptical, Gorton went to expose it as a touchy-feely rip-off.

“I figured I’d stand up right at the right time and let them have it,” he says. “But they let me have it first.”

In the sessions, trainees were directed to find a moment in their lives, a transformative moment, and go back to it, to smell it, to feel it again, to see it from another perspective. Sometimes those memories carried waves of emotion or nausea. Est Training gained notoriety from news reports and hearsay about trainees crying and vomiting during the sessions.

He chose to relive Watergate. But instead, his estranged father appeared to him. Gorton went to a phone and called his father and told him he loved him.

The experience lifted him higher in his rise from the ashes of Watergate.

Golding soon began her own political ascent. She eyed a vacant City Council seat and Gorton helped her get appointed to fill it — placing her one step closer to her eventual role as mayor of San Diego.

Noriega’s Call | As the 1980s came, a new era was opening around the world, and old economic and political cultures were collapsing. In places like Latin America and Eastern Europe, military dictators and Communist leaders were being replaced by the uneasy foundations of democracy.

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.

One-Suitcase Free Spirits | With career success came tremendous stress for Gorton.

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.

Then, Gorton got a sobering assessment from his doctor: He was a workaholic and if he kept it up, he was going to die. And so the Gortons decided they would work in 18-month election cycles and then close the doors, sell the cars, lease the house and travel for seven or eight months.

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.

Spiritually ravenous, the pair spent 10 days in a Buddhist monastery, separated from their possessions, separated from each other, discouraged from making eye contact, and left to meditate and fast.

They went on to Saipan, Bangkok, India and Rome. They bought a Volkswagen camper in Amsterdam and traveled to Spain.

Gorton returned to the United States and to his hard-hitting political work. Some of his acquaintances had warned him he’d lose momentum or gain a reputation for being unreliable by taking off to travel around the world. But he made more money in 1986 than he’d ever made before, and took off again in 1987.

“George is an interesting person who periodically wants to do his thing,” Golding says. “If you wanted George and his talents, you accepted George as he was.”

As stressful as the discrepancy was between trying to be peaceful, meditative, caring for others in the odd-numbered years and running cutthroat campaigns and negative commercials in the evens, Gorton held onto both.

“I balance my life in extremes,” he says.

Even now, Gorton’s friends in the spiritual world don’t understand how he’s a Republican political consultant. The political people he runs with “can’t understand what the hell I’m doing in the spiritual world,” he says.

But to the closest of his associates, his spirituality informs his work.

“I think that the fact that George has demonstrated this extraordinary prowess in the world of politics and business, it is not mysterious to me at all that he also demonstrated this extraordinary prowess in the world of formlessness,” Barlin Gorton says. “What’s extraordinary about George is that he can see the connection.”

The Emergence of a Long-Lost Son | In 1989, Gorton returned home from a trip and heard the voice of his high-school sweetheart, Linda Kooiman, on his answering machine. That wasn’t unusual. The two checked in on each other a few times a year.

In the message, Kooiman left a number for him to call her back. He dialed it.

“Hi, George, how are you?” she said.

“Fine,” he replied.

“Would you like to talk to your son?” she asked.

She passed the phone to Steven Moore, a 21-year-old student at the University of Oklahoma. Gorton heard his voice and couldn’t breathe.

Gorton knew he had a son, but didn’t expect to ever meet him. When Kooiman was pregnant two decades earlier, she asked the 21-year-old Gorton if he wanted to get married. He refused. “I was a young man in a hurry,” he says. They put the baby up for adoption.

“I didn’t have any framework for him,” Gorton says. “I didn’t know whether I should say I love you. I wanted two minutes to pull myself together.”

Moore had just been through this ordeal days earlier when Kooiman tracked him down. “For me it was just like, another parent? Bring it on,” he says.

Moore told his new father that it would be fine. After a couple of minutes, Gorton asked if he could call Moore back the next day after collecting himself.

The two got along famously. Moore came to California a few months later to meet Kooiman, and visited San Diego to spend some time with Gorton. Father and son looked each other up and down — the ponytailed, motorcycle-riding Amnesty International volunteer and journalism major, and his father, a Republican political consultant.

They sat across a table from each other for hours, discovering similarities seen and unseen.

Moore played the trumpet; Gorton played the trumpet. Moore lettered in one sport, wrestling; Gorton lettered in one sport, wrestling. And even more specific — Moore had tickets to a Rolling Stones concert and didn’t go; Gorton had tickets to a Rolling Stones concert and didn’t go.

“What do you say to this person who you’ve just met who’s your father?” Moore says. “There’s this sense of closeness. We both noticed at the same time that we were doing the same gestures. This person I’ve just met is mirroring me!”

Moore returned to California for an internship on the 1990 Wilson campaign for governor.

The family business was hard to resist, and Moore ultimately became Gorton’s business partner, inextricably linked to the work Gorton pursued in the United States and around the world. He is Gorton’s best friend, his frequent travel companion to Burning Man, and very much a Gorton despite his different last name.

“It’s almost like cheating, you know,” Gorton says. “You get all of this extra love and you didn’t have to do anything for it.”

Moore’s adopted father had died when he was 15. “I was sort of in the market for a father figure,” Moore says. “George ended up being a big-brother figure.”

Barlin Gorton gave birth to a son, A.J., the summer after that first phone call. With Wilson’s 1990 gubernatorial win, the couple moved to Sacramento with the transition team, and bought a motor home to travel the western United States in the odd-numbered 1991.

But as Gorton’s career stretched towards its pinnacle, Barlin Gorton placed greater priority on staying home with A.J. They divorced in 1992.

Unlike with Moore, Gorton has played a significant role in A.J.’s youth. He’s been known to campaign in San Diego in the morning, fly up to Arizona for one of A.J’s football games, and fly back to continue campaign operations that evening.

He’s effusive in describing Barlin Gorton’s influence in his life, the lobbyist he met at Election Central that night in 1983. She’s one in the cast of strong, successful women that Gorton married or dated throughout the years.

“I revel in the power of the women I’m with,” he says.

Wilson’s Big Comeback | Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 reelection campaign looked hopeless. His first term had been cursed. The state economy imploded and the budget suffered from a multi-billion dollar deficit. The Oakland Hills fire had burned out of control.

And the incumbent was 23 percentage points behind challenger Kathleen Brown.

Gorton, Wilson’s political architect, searched for a tough issue to press Brown on, and he found one: immigration. Its manifestation: Wilson’s support for Proposition 187. The initiative, which ran parallel to the governor’s race in 1994, denied social services, health care and education to illegal immigrants. It wasn’t a tough choice, Gorton says; time and again, it was the resounding issue that came out of focus groups.

Wilson’s campaign concocted threatening and dark commercials featuring immigrants crossing the border.

In the end, Gorton orchestrated a remarkable turnaround. Wilson won by 19 percentage points. The feat landed him the MVP award from the American Association of Political Consultants.

Wilson’s 1994 campaign became synonymous with Proposition 187, which is often cited as the catalyst in alienating Latino voters from the California Republican Party. It passed, but was ultimately challenged in court and never instituted.

Bob Mulholland, longtime California Democratic Party campaign advisor, says Gorton and Wilson made a boogeyman out of the illegal immigrant. “Gorton and Wilson knew what they were doing and milked it as much as possible,” he says. “And George Gorton should be embarrassed about that for the rest of his life.”

Clint Reilly ran Brown’s campaign. He said Wilson and Gorton thrived because of a trust borne out of their lengthy history. Consultants don’t often have the luxury of that kind of long-term relationship, Reilly said, and it helped them throughout Wilson’s various campaigns.

There were many of them. Wilson successfully ran for San Diego mayor three times, lost a governor’s race in 1978, and won two terms each as senator and governor. There was also an aborted attempt for president in 1996.

“In some ways George was almost indistinguishable from Pete Wilson and Pete Wilson was almost indistinguishable from George Gorton,” Reilly says. “It’s a little bit like Rove and Bush, a long-term relationship of trust.”

In that campaign, Gorton displayed the traits that helped him transcend the role of typical political operative. He showed open-mindedness and an ability to juggle egos and to silently sit at a table and listen without foisting his opinions on everyone else, said Joe Shumate, longtime Gorton partner, who called the 1994 campaign “the best situation in my 30 years of this nonsense.”

Issues of race and ethnicity cropped up again when Wilson primed himself for a presidential run with an anti-affirmative action message in the state of California. With Proposition 187 and the affirmative action push under his belt, the politician was accused of stoking white fears to win votes.

For Gorton, days spent living real life, not just plotting political moves, lent deeper understanding of the issue he’d worked to define for California in the campaign.

One day, after the campaign was over, a day laborer worked at Gorton’s house. He saw a framed Los Angeles Times story about Gorton, titled “Pete’s Guru.”

“He hates us,” the Latino worker said of Wilson.

“No, he doesn’t,” Gorton replied.

“Yes, he hates us,” the man repeated.

Later, the two traipsed with a case of beer to a spot under a bridge. The men cracked open the cans and discussed life as an immigrant. The worker described the Catch-22 plaguing illegal immigrants: the impossibility of obtaining car insurance without a driver’s license, yet the troubles faced when such drivers were pulled over and found to have no insurance.

Gorton went to sleep that night with an altered perspective.

To some in his political and business circles, Gorton’s the complex topic. Long-time friend and local political figure David Malcolm says Gorton’s always done the opposite of what he should do to be financially successful, not marketing himself and pulling himself from the power circles so frequently to disappear into some far-off country.

“My advice to him is always that happiness is no further away than your own nose if you know how to recognize it,” Malcolm says.

And Moore admits that the different sides of Gorton might not always seem to add up. But, he says, his father is driven by a belief in individual freedoms. “If you sit with George Gorton long enough he makes you see there’s a logical intersection between being a hippie wanderer and a free market champion,” Moore says.

The intersection of Gorton’s politics and spirituality never came as close as they did one day in 1995.

He went to Barlin Gorton’s house to pick up A.J. An unimposing man sat in her home and said little.

When Gorton left, the man offered an ominous warning to his host. “You better get him involved in our group,” the man said, “because he’s about to go visit hell.”

Tomorrow: Part II: Russia, Parkinson’s and Ninja Camping.

Please contact the writers directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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