Part two of a two-part series. Read part one.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | For two decades, George Gorton had served Pete Wilson as a key architect of the politician’s rise from San Diego mayor to U.S. senator to California governor.
In 1995, Wilson and team launched a run for president. A generation after the weight of Watergate crushed Gorton’s career, he readied his return to the national stage.
Then, one morning, a headline in the Sacramento Bee smashed that notion: Wilson had hired an outside consultant with national experience to head the campaign, shoving Gorton aside.
Gorton had been told nothing. He was fuming and ready to blow.
This was the man who’d helped build the Pete Wilson political machine and sculpt a generation of San Diego politics. He’d helped elect President Richard Nixon in 1972, only to be caught in the jaws of Watergate and have to spend years fighting his way through a personal and professional hell to recover.
This was the man who’d been called upon to fly to Panama and meet with Gen. Manuel Noriega to help plot the country’s beginning steps toward democracy.
When Gorton found his long-lost son, he even roped him into the Wilson-for-office campaign family.
And now, again, it seemed as if everything he’d worked for was being taken from him. But as he headed toward Wilson’s office, a calm enveloped him. Gorton wasn’t the same man he was 22 years ago when a headline in the Washington Post ruined him. He’d matured. He’d found family and spirituality.
And now he had Don Miguel Ruiz.
Days before that Bee story arrived on the region’s doorstep, Gorton had gone to ex-wife Terry Barlin Gorton’s home to pick up his son, A.J. An unimposing man sat inside Barlin Gorton’s home, saying little until Gorton left. “You better get him involved in our group,” the man told Barlin Gorton, “because he’s about to go visit hell.”
The man was Don Miguel, a spiritual guide whose teachings were based on ancient, pre-Columbian wisdom. He attempted to push people toward happiness and love by adjusting how they view themselves and the world around them.
Gorton was invited to one of Don Miguel’s weekend retreats. There, in a role-playing exercise, Don Miguel put Judas on trial for the betrayal of Jesus Christ. He picked Gorton to play Judas and Barlin Gorton as the prosecutor. With the end of the hours-long trial exercise came a new perspective on the traditional story of epic betrayal. Jesus planned to be crucified and Judas was only helping him, according to Don Miguel’s twist.
“There is no such thing as betrayal,” Don Miguel said. He looked directly at Gorton. Don’t take anything personally, the man taught. People do things out of their own created perception of reality, not to hurt you.
“George, your issue is betrayal,” he said. “You will be betrayed. There is no betrayal.”
That’s great, Gorton thought, but I’ve got to get going.
The next day, the Bee story hit. And as Gorton stormed over to Wilson’s office, he suddenly heard Don Miguel’s words: “There is no betrayal.”
“Pete was just doing what he was doing for his own reasons,” Gorton says. “I was indulging in a form of self-pity.” He walked into Wilson’s office and calmly said he was leaving. “I’m a captain, not a first mate,” he said.
Gorton didn’t just buy into Don Miguel’s world. He inhaled it. The political consultant ascended in the ranks of Don Miguel’s disciples, becoming “nagual man,” the No. 2 spot in an organization that produces self-help books, sells DVDs and guides spiritual trips to Teotihuacan, Mexico. Gorton is named in the acknowledgements of Don Miguel’s best-selling book, “The Four Agreements.”
Don Miguel brought Gorton’s spiritual journey full circle. Spiritual training in new-age conferences and at Buddhist temples in Thailand had woken him up and taught him to balance a pursuit of peace with the high-powered, high-stress, cutthroat world of politics.
But Don Miguel showed him how to love. “You don’t feel love from other people,” Gorton says now. “You feel love from yourself.”
The meeting with Don Miguel wove a new thread into a pattern in Gorton’s life: No matter what he did, he cobbled together an unlikely but illustrious band of associates.
In politics, he worked alongside Boris Yeltsin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. One ex-girlfriend became mayor of San Diego; another served a key post at the United Nations. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he was treated by the man who had unlocked an entire chest of the disease’s secrets in the 1980s.
He demonstrated an unusual stability despite suffering a normally debilitating invasion of Parkinson’s, a resistance so shocking to him that he’s begun to suspect that he was the victim of a poisoning attempt by political opponents in Russia.
But in 1995, Wilson’s move left Gorton without something he’d long been able to depend on: a Wilson campaign. The political consultant’s most dependable client over the decades had essentially canned him. Wilson’s presidential bid eventually failed anyway.
So he did what he always did when there wasn’t an election — he traveled. This time, he headed to Bali with Don Miguel. There, he accepted his next job by sending a simple fax: “I want in.”
Spinning Boris | Boris Yeltsin prepared for his first reelection campaign in 1996 after winning the first post-Soviet presidential election in 1991. His prospects looked dim.
He polled in the single digits. The economy was bad and war consumed Chechnya. People saw Yeltsin as a good guy surrounded by corrupt bureaucrats and businessmen.
In the years since communism had fallen, a small clique of former KGB agents and would-be tycoons had been the first to the table as a massive nationalized economy was broken up and passed out to private hands. The so-called “oligarchs” had grown rich snapping up what was once property of the state, the banks, car companies and television stations.
The election could’ve decided their fates. The Communist candidate condemned capitalism, blamed the West for the Soviet Union’s downfall, and said the Soviet states would reunite voluntarily. He led the early polls.
Talk of cancelling the election swirled, and the oligarchs had been specifically called on to pony up cash for Yeltsin’s campaign. An idea surfaced on how to spend that money: American political consultants.
At the same time, Gorton and consulting partner Joe Shumate milled about their offices, in the wake of Wilson’s failed bid. The campaign had collapsed before it really started — a throat condition made it difficult for the candidate to speak early on and raising money was tough.
The office phone rang and Shumate picked up. A Russian-American businessman who lived in the United States had new work for the trio of Gorton, Shumate and pollster Dick Dresner on another presidential campaign — Boris Yeltsin’s.
No one really took it seriously.
That is, until their suitors kept the Russian consulate open after hours so that Dresner could get his visa. Dresner flew to Moscow and put together a proposal for $250,000 plus expenses. It was a secret engagement; the consultants would tell people they were in Russia selling thin-screen televisions.
Gorton digested the details in Bali and sent Dresner a simple fax: “I want in.”
They flew to Moscow, and as they settled in, the consultants quickly came to the conclusion that the campaign was being run all wrong. Pictures of a stoic, unsmiling Yeltsin adorned campaign posters. He was presented as czar-like. Hands weren’t being shaken. Babies weren’t being kissed. There were no photo-ops.
But the Americans were brought in by just one of many groups competing for Yeltsin’s ear. No one who had a direct line into the president seemed to care or even know they were there. For the first weeks, they stayed in the hotel and did little. They weren’t allowed to leave the hotel without chaperones. They contemplated leaving. When they were allowed to offer advice, no one listened.
They’d never even met the man they were working to get elected. No one got to meet him. Everything went through his daughter, Tatyana Yeltsin Dyachenko.
In an effort to help prepare the president for a major address, the American consultants offered Dyachenko a vision: a short, quick address with a handful of talking points in a room filled with a young, diverse group. It would be a lively departure from Yeltsin’s standard long, droning speeches, presented to a room of old, bored government insiders.
As soon as the consultants began watching the address, they knew they’d been ignored again. It was standard Yeltsin. Long, and delivered to a stodgy, lifeless crowd.
Gorton felt he had to do something to get his message across. He reached for one of the political consultant’s greatest tools: The perception analyzer. The consultants put together a test group, handed dials to the residents and played a tape of Yeltsin’s speech. When the residents’ opinions were good, they cranked the dial one way. When they were bad, they cranked the dial the other way. A screen displayed the results.
Gorton sat Dyachenko down and had her watch the voters’ reactions to her father’s speech. When the camera flashed to the frozen crowd, the analyzer shot down. When Yeltsin droned on and on, it did the same.
The speech bombed. Shumate had never seen anything like it.
It was a major breakthrough; the consultants now had the conduit they needed into Yeltsin and a plan. They flew to the Russian boondocks and conducted focus groups in barns. Outside of the bubble of Moscow, they learned that Yeltsin’s messages weren’t resonating.
He boasted that he’d cut inflation by 50 percent, given land back to farmers and given back pay to workers of state-owned factories. But voters either didn’t get it or didn’t care. Voters believed the government existed just to make people in Moscow money. And Yeltsin had a reputation for showing up drunk to public events.
The consultants found that voters were very resistant to change. No matter how bad things were, they feared they could get worse. They preferred very slow change to the risk of sudden change.
And they were afraid of civil unrest if they elected a new government.
“My guy was drunk, corrupt. It was bad vs. evil,” Gorton says.
And, Shumate says, Gorton was the first person to understand how the voters were thinking.
The campaign turned around. The Americans felt their ideas were working. Yeltsin went out among the people. He smiled. His campaign stoked fears of a civil war. His numbers shot up. Even with the consultants’ secrecy, hints of their presence could be found. “Yeltsin is running a slick Western-style campaign the likes of which Russia has never seen,” CNN declared at the time.
Then, the candidate got confident. He publicly predicted victory in the primary, saying he’d get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. He danced at youth rock ‘n’ roll rallies. That was a problem with older voters.
Those close to Yeltsin started to get nervous, according to Gorton. The polling was notoriously unreliable in Russia at the time because so many Russians didn’t have phones. The sponsor told Gorton to get Yeltsin to call off the election.
Lots of money, and maybe even lives, Gorton thought, were at stake as Russia attempted to get its footing in democracy.
He authored a memo, delivered to Dyachenko, essentially defying the wishes of the oligarchs and explaining why the election was winnable and how it would be done. It was the first time he’s ever guaranteed victory.
That’s when Gorton says he began fearing for his life, afraid those who wanted the election cancelled would come after him. He says the liaison between the consultants and the sponsor told him that the consultants would all be killed — as would Dyachenko — because of the memo.
Their pollster refused to give them their latest batch of numbers. Gorton piled all the furniture against the door in their hotel room to guard against intruders. His son, Steven Moore, helped. Their guards and cars changed. Gorton and Dresner settled on a place to meet in an emergency, Gorky Park.
He called home frequently and left messages with his own answering machine or with his ex-wives, describing where he was and what he was doing in case he was killed.
Word got out that they were there. They got a call from Michael Kramer, a Time magazine reporter in Moscow. The gig was up. He was going to run the story, so they made a deal with him: He got the full, exclusive story and they would sneak him into the hotel to show him everything. Kramer just had to sit on the story until the election was over.
Election Day came, the story stayed under wraps and it looked like Gorton’s worries for his own safety were for naught. Yeltsin won the primary election by 3 percent and later went on to win the runoff.
But maybe no one was in any real danger anyway. Shumate remembers things differently. He says he didn’t feel threatened like others did. “I never seriously felt fear,” he says.
Regardless, the Time story broke after the election with a front-page illustration of Yeltsin holding an American flag, and the consultants returned home stars. They hired a publicist and got ink just about everywhere. At first, denials came from Russia. Then, the consultants’ roles were minimized.
The New York Times offered up a skeptical account of the consultants’ story. The newspaper quoted Dyachenko as saying the Americans “did some work. None of it was central, either in terms of planning or strategy.”
Still, Hollywood came calling. In 2004, Showtime made a movie called “Spinning Boris.” Jeff Goldblum played Gorton, whose 400-page journal served as the flick’s foundation. The only order from Gorton: cut the sex scenes from the movie.
In a review of the movie, Time magazine painted an unflattering picture of the consultants. “The three Americans are not especially likable — it’s hard to tell their principles from mercenariness — but that’s the point,” it said.
“Spinning Boris” also hints at a playful, and plausible, side story. Gorton appears to have helped his cause by shamelessly flirting with a married Dyachenko.
A Battle with Disease | Gorton returned to the United States in 1996 a successful man, the eager and willing subject of a media circus.
But physically, he felt peculiar. His muscles were sore, which he attributed to six months of near-constant jet lag from flying so frequently between Sacramento and Moscow. His lips trembled.
He visited Barlin Gorton and A.J. She noticed he was carrying one side of his body with a slump, like someone who had a stroke. It was the first inkling of the disease that would cause Gorton to again radically change the course of his life.
He began to suffer from stabbing pains in his buttocks and face that would bring him to his knees. For a while, he was intimidated by everything, by social situations and occurrences he would never have given a second thought, like answering the door when the pizza guy came.
“What would people think would be normal for me to say?” he thought.
He developed a slight shake in his hand that made it difficult to lift a coffee mug and carry a briefcase. That’s when he went to see the doctor.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is not itself a fatal disease, but as it progresses, it increases the sufferer’s chances of falling, choking or developing pneumonia and dying. Though no neurologist told him how long he had to live, Gorton found a mention of a nine-year life expectancy in the book in the library. He told himself that’s how much time he had left. Doctors aren’t sure where he got that from and say Parkinson’s patients aren’t given such a life expectancy.
Regardless, it took all of the positive-thinking techniques in his spiritual quiver to hold it together. Resigning himself to live his last years with Parkinson’s, he departed for Mexico.
For three weeks in Tulum, the site of the ruins of a Mayan walled city, Gorton prayed, fasted and meditated. Parkinson’s, he knew, would reduce him to a person who was needy, to a person who would elicit pity from others, to a person who would become unrecognizable to his family and friends and to his colleague.
There, in the Yucatan, was a man who had packed to the brim his 50 years with international intrigue and U.S. political importance, passionate relationships with powerful women, surprising relationships with two sons, and a dogged pursuit for spiritual enlightenment.
And there, in the Yucatan, that man was coming to grips with his mortality.
After three weeks, he called a woman he’d been dating, Kiki Holzen, an aspiring actress with a day job in political campaigns. Gorton called and asked her if she’d join him in Mexico; she did.
One day, as they walked along the beach. “I love you,” she told him.
“What do you know about love?” he said. “You’re 22 years younger than me.”
He told her he had Parkinson’s.
“It doesn’t kill you, does it?” she said.
“Yeah, it does,” he said. “I have nine years.”
“I’d rather have nine years with you than a lifetime with anyone else,” she said.
Her words melted Gorton. At a time when he feared that no one would be willing to take care of him, Holzen stepped in. She became his third wife.
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.
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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