Back in California, Gorton fretted that A.J., then in grade school, would only remember a declining version of his dad. He remembered what it was like to have people feel sorry for him during Watergate and imagined living out his life in a wheelchair.
Parkinson’s disease is degenerative, affecting the central nervous system and hindering speech and movement. It causes a tremor that can send limbs shooting in dramatic, uncontrolled movements, slowed reaction time, and some behavior and thinking changes. People can display Parkinson’s symptoms by a genetic predisposition or by outside causes such as chemicals, toxins or trauma.
Gorton, his friends and family expected him to get progressively worse. And they saw that happen. He was unable to hold a coffee cup or carry his briefcase. He became so timid he agonized over what to say at dinner parties.
But, in the last six to eight months, Gorton and his friends have seen what they say is a marked improvement in his condition.
Dr. J. William Langston says his patient “has done pretty darn well” after 12 years of having what Langston called a typical case of mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s. The doctor attributed the apparent improvement to drug management, and says Gorton’s disease is progressing very slowly, if at all.
Compared to the dramatic flailing and tremors commonly associated with Parkinson’s, and especially compared to the trouble Gorton had when he was first diagnosed with the degenerative disease, his symptoms are stable.
To sit with Gorton for breakfast now is to watch a man eat machaca with a steady fork and drink from a coffee mug as he stares out at the ocean through a cafe window. To drive with him in a silver convertible through downtown San Diego, and to walk with him up the driveway to the Golden Hill house that hosts his temporary offices, is to see a man who shows none of the dramatic movements of a Parkinson’s sufferer, especially not one who has had a dozen years for the disorder to take root.
But recently, Gorton and his family and friends have started to wonder if there could be another explanation for the symptoms that had appeared right after his trip to Russia.
Moore says they always thought that something related to his time in Russia had triggered his symptoms. Before the Parkinson’s diagnosis, Gorton had floated the theory in his mind that he was just jet-lagged from the constant flights between Moscow and Sacramento. Gorton remembered a night of celebration in Russia with his hosts when he fell on his knees a lot performing traditional Russian dances. Perhaps a combination of those could account for the pain and symptoms he had when he returned home, he had thought.
Or, there was that day, that day in Moscow, when Gorton and Moore visited the statue. A cold day, but not unusually cold. A throwaway memory of a day spent sight-seeing, but for one weird detail.
An ABC News reporter had told Moore about the statue under construction near their hotel, the President Hotel. It was a 300-foot statue of Peter the Great, the sixth tallest statue in the world. It was obscured by steel girders and construction scaffolding. The journalist told Moore the statue could be climbed and that it was worth checking out.
The next day, Moore and Gorton climbed up the statue steps, finding themselves in the company of about 15 people. As they came down from the statue, a stranger walked up next to Gorton and bumped into him.
“Oh, excuse me, excuse me,” Gorton said to the man. The stranger grumbled something in Russian and left.
Father and son continued their descent, walking about 20 feet before Gorton was struck by an urgent need to sit down. His fingers started tingling. He hurt. His lip trembled.
The next day he flew back to Sacramento as part of the normal rotations the consultants took. He went to the doctor, who told him he was depressed. He didn’t understand the diagnosis — he was happy, making a bundle of money and at the top of his life.
Gorton forgot about the incident at the statue in the aftermath of Yeltsin’s win. But when he was trying to figure out his illness, he became especially aware of the danger he’d been in there. Before he arrived, prominent politicians or their staff had been attacked with car bombs and acid. Assassination seemed an accepted tactic in politics.
Then, the international media erupted in late 2006 with the story of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who grew suddenly ill and died in three weeks from lethal poisoning by radioactive plutonium-210. Litvinenko was a former employee of one of Yeltin’s oligarchs.
A friend watching “Spinning Boris” grew startled at a scene where Gorton tells his Russian hosts he won’t support cancelling the elections, raising their ire. The friend asked Barlin Gorton, “Do you think George could’ve been poisoned?”
All of this was enough to catch Gorton’s eye.
But, he says adamantly, he doesn’t know enough to say he definitely was poisoned. But he thinks the possibility is credible. And Moore says the day at the statue was really a forgotten memory until recently.
“You just don’t necessarily expect it, until you find out that the Russians are still in the practice of poisoning people,” Moore says.
Langston says the poisoning scenario is “extremely unlikely.”
“Having said that, is it possible? Yeah, it’s possible,” he says.
In fact, Langston has first-hand experience with patients displaying Parkinson’s symptoms after being injected with outside chemicals, albeit in completely different circumstances.
There have been several documented cases of people displaying Parkinson’s symptoms after being injected with a specific chemical known as MPTP. And Langston, the founder of the Sunnyvale-based Parkinson’s Institute, discovered that link, which revolutionized the medical community’s understanding and treatment of Parkinson’s.