From San Diego to Moscow: George Gorton's Strange and Wild Assignments
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.
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.
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.