He found that link in 1982 when heroin addicts started showing up in hospitals in northern California, their muscles “frozen” and their symptoms closely resembling an extreme form of parkinsonism.
A local heroin dealer, in an attempt to make the drug, had mistakenly created the dangerous chemical MPTP and sold it as heroin. The addicts had unknowingly injected themselves with a chemical that gave them Parkinson’s-like symptoms.
The discovery gave researchers the ability to induce Parkinson’s symptoms in laboratory animals and then test different drugs and treatments.
Langston says a decade ago he heard several reports of a rumor that a diplomat or a spy had been injected with MPTP, poisoned after falling out of favor in Russia. That case wasn’t proven or documented, he says, but he received several phone calls about it and heard the rumor more than once.
There’d be no way to test Gorton now, a dozen years later, for the chemical, Langston says, because it would wash out of the body within a couple of months of the exposure. The only way to know if someone truly has Parkinson’s disease, or just symptoms brought about by some outside force, is to perform an autopsy after they die.
But, it is “conceivable” that Gorton could have been poisoned, Langston says. And, Gorton’s relatively stable symptoms fit the parameters of an MPTP case.
Gorton has floated the poisoning idea with Langston.
“I would just kind of smile a little bit and say, ‘Well, it’s possible,’” Langston says. “I don’t think that’s what it is, but can I rule it out? Nope. And with his colorful life, who knows?”
Living with His Symptoms | Gorton owns homes in Sacramento and Sedona, but he doesn’t live in either. Instead, home is a recreational vehicle, nicknamed “Harvey the RV.” He takes the 37-foot brown motor home up and down the coast and all around. It’s never clear exactly where Gorton’s going to end up from day to day.
His San Diego roots remain deep.
“George has never really 100 percent left San Diego,” says his former girlfriend and mayor of San Diego, Susan Golding. “He’s very true to himself. He’s a barefoot beach boy, and he’s never changed.”
On a recent springtime afternoon, Harvey is parked next to the grass at Mission Bay. Gorton calls it “ninja camping,” because he gets around the no-overnight-parking rule by driving around between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m..
He jumps out the front door, barefoot, to greet visitors. His black gambler hat rolls off into the grass.
Inside, discussing his illness, he hops up and down on one foot on the white bearskin rug to show how much he’s improved. He patiently works a corkscrew into a bottle of chardonnay, as if to dare his visitors to think he’s completely healed.
World techno music bumps. His jeans are hastily cuffed and at points, as he talks, he digs his toes into the rug by the sink. When he’s asked if he throws parties there, in the RV, Gorton quickly hangs glowing lights and puts Venetian carnival masks on his visitors’ heads.
He pulls out a laptop to show off photos from renowned annual festival Burning Man. One of the photos appears too scandalous. Startled, he slams the laptop shut and changes the topic.
With Gorton, conversation always eventually shifts back to politics. His personal pursuits and illness haven’t completely shunted him off of the campaign trail.
He was the first consultant Arnold Schwarzenegger hired when he contemplated the leap from Hollywood to Sacramento in 1999. Polling showed people liked Schwarzenegger tremendously, but they weren’t ready to elect him to office.
So Gorton dreamed up Proposition 49 to introduce Arnold to the public, and in 2002 California residents saw images of Arnold the politician surrounded by children and pushing for the passage of his signature after-school funding initiative. A year later, then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger became the latest celebrity politician.
Now, nearly a decade after the Terminator first hired Gorton, the political consultant proudly sports his T3 jacket with the embroidered message, “George, thank you for your help. Arnold,” on the inside.
In 2005, after he left the governor’s team, Gorton returned to his old stomping grounds to command Steve Francis’ first run for San Diego mayor. Francis went from a no-name to a contender in a matter of weeks with the help of $2 million of his own cash, but didn’t make it out of the primary. Francis fell short again this year, without Gorton at his side.
Clint Reilly, a longtime former Democratic political consultant, says the state has shifted decidedly Democratic since Wilson’s last term as governor, and part of that was Gorton’s departure from state politics, he says. And when a Republican, Schwarzenegger, did rise, it was with Gorton’s help.
“Few people understand how to get Republicans elected in California,” Reilly says. “The Republican Party desperately needs George, to match George up with a candidate who can win.”
He’s now working to create an online school for political consultants, a place where he can pass on the techniques he had to hone outside of school — like how to run a negative television commercial.
Despite issuing a perpetual threat of retirement, he still takes calls — and considers the offers on the other end of the line.
“I think George’s work was always his mistress,” says his longtime friend David Malcolm. “And George was never able to give up his mistress — of being part of creating political leaders.”
The 61-year-old Gorton remains the flirtatious type. And he’s not really so done with campaigns, after all. On a new ballot initiative he hints at, he still holds his cards, in Gorton style, close to his chest. But he can’t hide the twinkle in his eye even as he keeps mum about what the state’s voters might soon hear about.
“This business is like sex,” he says. “You always want to do it one more time.”
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