George Gorton, who is managing Gov. Pete Wilson’s reelection campaign, doesn’t worry about the future.
The 47-year-old political consultant’s state of calm is partly a result of recent poll numbers that show Wilson ahead of his challenger, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. But truth be known, Gorton says, he hasn’t really worried since 1985, when he hooked up with an Asian monk called Buddhadassa, learned to meditate and succeeded, for the first time, in silencing his mind.
Yes, that’s right. Wilson’s most trusted campaign adviser--the man who has repeatedly sought to discredit Brown this year by linking her to the “Moonbeam” reputation of her brother Jerry Brown--has a mantra. And if not for advice he sought from a Tibetan guru known as the 47th Reincarnation of the Precious Destroyer of Illusions, Gorton says he might not be running Wilson’s reelection bid at all.
The revelation is surprising coming from a man who is described by those who know him as one of the most driven, go-for-the-jugular consultants in California politics. Many say that he is responsible for some of Wilson’s harshest campaign rhetoric and that he is willing to do virtually whatever it takes to win. After 24 years in politics, the bearded, twice-divorced Republican has a tough-guy image--not a mystical one.
But Gorton, whose early career was tarnished by Watergate, says he is misunderstood. To hear him tell it, he is on a search for truth--a search that in December, 1992, led him to the Che Waung monastery in Nepal to meet the Tibetan wise man.
“I was asking him about whether or not I should do this campaign. I said, ‘I’m very torn,’ ” Gorton said, recalling how the guru threw the moe --a fortune-telling ritual--three times before giving his answer. Then, through an interpreter, he told Gorton: “It doesn’t matter what you do because your life is going to change dramatically in two years anyway.”
Sitting in his office, where a large photo of his four-year-old son, A.J., and a framed batik of Siddhartha hang on the wall, Gorton said he is readying himself for the prophesy to come true this December. He has sold Direct Communication, the successful telemarketing firm that helped make him a millionaire. And win or lose, after the Nov. 8 election he is considering chucking politics altogether.
“I want to be open to anything,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t like what I do. I do. But it is sort of a warrior’s profession. And I’m heading into a period in my life where I may want to be . . . more of a healer than a warrior.”
Gorton’s thoughts of quitting come precisely as his talents are being widely recognized. This campaign has been grueling. In May, 1993, the incumbent was 23 points behind. A recent Times poll put Wilson nine points ahead, and even Democrats say Gorton deserves credit for deciding on a campaign message and sticking to it.
“One of the things that consultants for incumbents often forget is that you have the ability to integrate into your campaign what’s happening in government,” said Bill Cavala, a consultant to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). “George made sure (to do that). . . . Last month, every day (Wilson) signed a little package of legislation, that shows the governor is on top of something. . . . It’s a good campaign. It’s focused. I’ve seen few do it as well.”
Gorton’s relationship with Wilson is unusually close and, as a result, the role he plays in the campaign is unlike that of many political consultants. Part of that is a result of how long they’ve known each other. Gorton has played key roles in Wilson’s five statewide campaigns and was manager of three.
Brown hired her current campaign chairman, Clint Reilly, just seven months ago. The contrasts don’t end there. Reilly’s style is to be in control of everything: His firm not only presides over campaign strategy but also produces the television commercials and designs Brown’s campaign mailers.
Gorton has a more modest role and a gentler touch. The rhetoric of Wilson’s campaign may be harsh at times, but Gorton-the-manager resembles less a dictator than a chairman of the board. Some say his greatest talent is encouraging fruitful debate. And he does it for $20,000 a month (Reilly’s firm will make at least $1 million from the race).
Larry Thomas, a longtime Wilson adviser who is senior counsel to the 1994 campaign, calls Gorton “a person who prefers consensus to giving orders.” Sometimes, Gorton--who has been known to spend months trekking in the Himalayas and who once, years ago, experimented briefly with Scientology--will use his unconventional experiences to try to draw out his staff.
“He might say in a meeting, ‘This is something I learned in est training,’ ” Don Sipple, Wilson’s media consultant, said with a laugh. “This is not a guy who has incense burning in his house and has a Nehru jacket on and then slips into a Brooks Brothers suit and Hermes tie to come to work. This is not a dual life. It is one.”
To understand Gorton is to understand Wilson’s cohesive team of advisers--and the loss they suffered in 1991. In June of that year, Otto Bos, Wilson’s 47-year-old director of communications, died suddenly of a heart attack. A Wilson confidant for 14 years, Bos also was a perfect partner for Gorton--smooth when Gorton was blunt, deliberative when Gorton was decisive.
They had worked together since 1982, when Gorton managed Wilson’s bid for the U.S. Senate and Bos was press secretary. By Wilson’s 1990 campaign for governor--their third race together--"(George) and Otto were larger than the sum of their parts,” Thomas said.
The sudden death of Bos tore a ragged hole in Wilson’s inner circle, which also includes Chief of Staff Bob White and pollster Richard Dresner.
“But with Otto’s death, George emerged,” said Stuart K. Spencer, a veteran Republican political consultant. “In terms of the Wilson operation, George had maybe been Otto’s equal, but he had not been No. 1. No doubt in my mind that George is now No. 1.”
Not everyone thinks that is a good thing. One Republican consultant said that “without Otto Bos, there’s very few people to restrain George.” (Though this person added, “His handling of Kathleen Brown has been masterful.”)
Joe Scott, a corporate and political consultant who has worked in several nonpartisan campaigns, blamed Gorton for what he calls Wilson’s “shrill” discussion of Proposition 187, the ballot measure that seeks to deny state benefits such as public schooling and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants.
"(Gorton) appeals to the attack dog part of Pete,” Scott said. Without Gorton, he added, “I don’t think (Wilson) would have been so shrill on Proposition 187, blowing past the reality and using it to scapegoat immigrants.”
But Gorton’s admirers say he is only doing what it takes to win.
“The conventional wisdom would be: ‘You’re the incumbent. You defend. We’ll throw the spears, you catch them,’ ” said Bill Lowery, a Washington lobbyist, former San Diego congressman and one of Gorton’s best friends. “Guess what? George Gorton doesn’t buy off on that simplistic paradigm. Neither does Pete. . . . Did (the campaign) get a little shrill at times? Yes. But it wasn’t their choice. They’re not going to lay back and let Pete be defined by an opponent or the media. That’s what winners are all about.”
Gorton’s political involvement began in the 1960s, when he was president of the Aztec College Republicans at San Diego State University. After a brief stint as a high school math teacher, he worked as youth director for New York conservative James Buckley’s winning U.S. Senate campaign.
Gorton came back to San Diego to do the same youth mobilization work for a state assemblyman who was about to run for mayor: Wilson. Then, President Richard M. Nixon came calling.
“It was the first year that 18-year-olds had the vote, and (Nixon) was very concerned about it,” said Gorton, recalling how Nixon’s deputy campaign manager, Jeb Magruder, flew to San Diego to recruit him to be national college director for the Committee to Reelect the President, commonly known as CREEP. “I said, ‘You’re kidding. I’m just a kid from San Diego.’ ”
Soon, the kid from San Diego was getting his picture taken in the Oval Office (today, the photo hangs in a frame on his office wall). But Watergate was about to break, and so was Gorton’s fledgling career.
Gorton had hired a college student named Ted Brill to spy on a group of Quakers conducting a peace vigil outside the White House. Gorton says he paid Brill with a personal check because Magruder told him Brill’s life would be threatened if he were named in campaign finance reports.
Bob Woodward, the reporter for the Washington Post, found out about Brill, who reportedly said he had been told to set up the Quakers for a drug arrest--a contention Gorton denies. According to Woodward, Brill also suggested that he was not the only paid spy--an allegation that led to a Post editorial that decried the Republicans’ “kiddie spy corps.”
Then, as now, Gorton said there was no band of spies. Gorton was never tried or convicted of any Watergate offense, and he says the only impropriety involved his payments to Brill.
“It was a campaign reporting violation, which wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t a big deal--we didn’t get fined for it,” he said. Still, Gorton was fired. And things would only get worse.
As Gorton was looking for work, he gave out the phone number of a friend at Republican Party headquarters to ensure he didn’t miss prospective employers’ calls. That led to more news stories that said the Republican National Committee was helping find jobs for people implicated in Watergate. And that prompted then-Republican Party Chairman George Bush to call a news conference to banish Gorton from the party headquarters and bar him from working again in Republican campaigns.
“It was a miserable time. I certainly realized that (while) I was terribly loyal . . . no one was loyal to me,” Gorton says today. “But Watergate did a real interesting thing for me. It made me realize that I was responsible for my own life--how I live it, what I put into it, what I get out of it.”
At age 26, he returned to San Diego believing he would never work in politics again. He earned minimum wage at a bank. He gave tours of the city. He even promoted a friend’s record album, trying to convince radio stations to play “The Mike Curb Congregation Sings Winnie the Pooh.” (Curb would later become lieutenant governor).
But soon, Gorton was back, first as assistant finance director for the state Republican Party, then as finance director and then as an independent consultant. And he kept in close touch with Wilson, working on his unsuccessful bid for governor in 1978.
The first campaign Gorton actually managed was Lowery’s bid for Congress in 1980. “We were down 34 points in February and ended up winning by 10--that’s pretty Herculean,” recalls Lowery, who said that even then, Gorton had a tactic he still employs today: “Marshal the resources till the end and make them count. George is a stickler for that.”
He has certainly followed that strategy in the 1994 race. During the summer, when Brown was hammering Wilson with several ads about California’s failing economy, Gorton did not match her blow for blow. It would have been a waste, he said.
Many believe the 1994 election is a turning point for Gorton. Particularly if Wilson is reelected, they say, Gorton’s talents will probably be much in demand among Republicans who seek the presidency in 1996. The question is: After so many years in Wilson’s circle, does Gorton truly want to work for anyone else?
“He is going to have to make a decision after this campaign,” said Spencer, the political consultant. “If Pete Wilson decides to run for the presidency, George has got a horse there. But if Pete decides, ‘I’m gonna stay as governor,’ George is going to have to decide: ‘Am I going to make the next step and find another candidate?’ ”
“There are any number of presidential campaigns that would be tickled to have George on their team,” said Sipple, the media consultant. “But there would be a using dimension of that, and it would get away from the family dimension (of the Wilson operation). My hunch is that’s what George is all about. He is not a mercenary.”
After the election, Gorton plans to take a good long rest. For starters, he will travel to Asia and Africa. After that, he’s not so sure.
Lowery, the lobbyist, says Gorton “is at a fork in the road. One path could be the predictable: to be involved in ’96 (presidential politics) in a key way. The second path would be to find a new challenge. I don’t know which one he’s going to take. I don’t think he knows.”