George Gorton’s storied career as a political adviser almost died in its infancy, buried in the rubble of the Watergate scandal.
He fled Washington, D.C., and worked odd jobs until he got resurrected as a strategist and helped guide San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson to statewide victories in races for U.S. senator and California governor in the 1980s and 1990s.
He also assisted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s move from actor to governor, and spent time in Russia working to re-elect President Boris Yeltsin in a come-from-behind campaign that generated a 1996 cover story in Time magazine headlined, “Yanks to the Rescue.” It also spawned a 2003 Showtime movie, “Spinning Boris,” that starred Jeff Goldblum as Gorton.
Passionate and pointed during political seasons — “You draw up your strategy and then you draw your arrows,” he liked to say — Gorton unwound afterward by disappearing for months at a time, traveling the world for adventure and spiritual awakenings.
“He packed 10 lifetimes into one,” his son A.J. said.
Gorton died May 11 at a care facility in Mesa, Ariz., from the accumulated toll of Parkinson’s disease. He was 75.
He got his start in politics at San Diego State University in the late 1960s, a rare conservative amid tumultuous anti-war protests and civil rights demonstrations. That drew the attention of Republicans like Wilson, who was running for San Diego mayor in 1971 and wanted help mobilizing the youth vote.
Gorton’s successful efforts caught the eye of the Republican National Committee, which recruited him for President Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972. Gorton was assigned to the college vote.
As Watergate unfolded, the Washington Post detailed the alleged antics of a Gorton operative, who said he and others had been paid to monitor and undermine groups opposed to the president. In one case, the operative said, they were told to set up a drug bust among Quakers holding a marathon peace demonstration outside the White House.
Gorton said reports about the “kiddie spy corps” were false or blown out of proportion, but the administration cut him loose in 1973. In the best-known book about Watergate, “All the President’s Men,” Gorton’s involvement merited three pages.
His efforts to find another job backfired when it looked like the RNC was helping him. The then-chairman of the committee, George H.W. Bush, held a press conference to announce that Gorton was done in Republican politics.
“Friends of mine — I thought they were my friends — walked across the street when they saw me coming so they wouldn’t bump into me,” Gorton told the Union-Tribune in a 1995 interview.
He slunk back to San Diego and worked as an intern at a bank. He was a tour guide. He went around to radio stations, handing out toy bears and asking disc jockeys to play “Winnie the Pooh,” a single by the Mike Curb Congregation.
“It was awful,” he said.
In a roundabout way, Watergate is also what got him back on his political feet. Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign, and Gerald Ford replaced him. When Nixon stepped down, too, Ford became president. Ford ran to keep the job in 1976, and his son, Jack, recruited a good friend to help with the campaign — Gorton.
That led to work on Bill Lowery’s campaign for Congress in 1980 and Wilson’s runs for U.S. senator and governor. He also helped Susan Golding (a one-time girlfriend) get elected San Diego mayor in 1992.
“I always thought of him as a strong strategist,” said Tom Shepard, a longtime San Diego political consultant. “He understood the forces shaping public attitudes and was adept at taking advantage of them.”
Wilson’s re-election as governor in 1994 is probably Gorton’s most famous campaign, at least in political-consulting circles. Polls showed Wilson trailing Democrat Kathleen Brown by 20 points until he made illegal immigration a central focus. (That was the same year Proposition 187 was on the ballot. It banned undocumented migrants from receiving many public services.)
Wilson won with 55 percent of the vote, prompting pundits to call it perhaps the first election that was both a landslide and an upset. The American Association of Political Consultants named it campaign of the year. In 2014, the group inducted Gorton into its Hall of Fame.
When he was wasn’t involved in politics, Gorton enjoyed traveling, sometimes picking the destination on a whim at the airport. He went to Thailand, India, Bali and the Yucatan Peninsula, among other places. He had a trailer in San Felipe for weekend getaways.
Many of the journeys were spiritual. He was an early trainee in EST. He studied Eastern philosophy and took meditation classes. He became friends with Don Miguel Ruiz, a teacher and author, and regularly attended the Burning Man festival.
Survivors include sons A.J. Gorton of Gilbert, Ariz., and Steven Moore of Ukraine; sister Ronnie Bohlander of Mesa; half-brother Kenneth Gorton of Tacoma, Wash.; step-sisters Christina Langaard and Birgitte Necessary, both of the Seattle area; and three nieces and one nephew.
Services are pending, probably in the late summer or early fall.