The New York Times recently ran an article on how some psychiatrists are flouting the “Goldwater Rule” to offer informal psychological assessments of Donald Trump.
The Goldwater Rule declares it to be unethical for any psychiatrist to diagnose a public figure’s mental condition “unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
The rule was adopted in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association.
Proponents of the rule argue that subjects can’t be properly psychoanalyzed at a distance. Such diagnoses are frequently wrong, damaging to the subject’s reputation, liable to be misused for political ends, and contrary to the standard of confidentiality and impartiality that the profession is supposed to uphold.
How did it become known as the Goldwater Rule? Thereby hangs a tale.
For those who don’t remember it, the Goldwater-Johnson presidential campaign of 1964 was one of the most vicious in American history. Granted, Senator Goldwater took some controversial political stands, but he, personally, was one of the most decent, down-to-earth and unassuming men ever to run for the nation’s highest office.
Having a sterling character, however, did not save him from a rash of personal attacks that were as unfounded as they were scurrilous.
An editorial of the time from the Cincinnati Enquirer put it this way:
“Barry Goldwater has become the most slandered man in American political history … He is portrayed as a poisoner of children, as a creature of the night-riders [In other words, as an agent of the Ku Klux Klan], as a pawn of the militarists and war mongers.”
Goldwater was even accused of being in league with Neo-Nazi organizations in Germany. This, despite the fact that the man was half Jewish!
A television ad by the Johnson campaign has entered political legend, even though it was only aired once. Sen. Goldwater was not mentioned by name but the message was inescapable: Goldwater was an irresponsible maniac who would plunge the world into a nuclear war if he was elected president.
Some psychiatrists joined in the feeding frenzy. Shortly before the election, a magazine called Fact ran a cover story that proclaimed in giant type: “1189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to be President.”
The cover was widely advertised. The New York Times, for example, ran a full-page reproduction. As a result, untold numbers of voters who never read the magazine story saw the cover, and drew their own conclusions.
The article cited the opinions of various psychiatrists—none of whom had actually examined their subject—that Sen. Goldwater was, among other things, mother-dominated, paranoid, pathological, schizophrenic, and had doubts about his masculinity.
Was there any basis for these allegations? When Goldwater ran for president in 1964, he had been happily married to the same woman for 30 years. The Goldwaters had four children—two boys and two girls—all of whom had grown up to be cheerful, capable and well-adjusted adults.
Goldwater had been a successful businessman. He had rafted the Grand Canyon. He had been a pilot during World War II, delivering supplies to China by flying over the Himalayan Mountains. He remained in the Air Force Reserve, and by 1964 he had attained the rank of major general.
Doubts about his masculinity indeed!
Senator Goldwater was not a vindictive man, but that article was more than he could stomach. He sued Fact magazine and its editor Ralph Ginzburg for libel.
The senator’s friends tried to discourage him from taking this step. They pointed out that in the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court had dramatically raised the bar on public figures who attempted to bring libel actions. In Sullivan, a unanimous Court concluded that it was not enough for a public official to prove that a story was false; the official must prove that the story was published with “actual malice.”
In other words, the official had to prove that the libel was printed with the knowledge that it was false, or with “reckless disregard” of whether it was true or false.
That was a very high standard, to be sure. But the facts of the case were such that Goldwater was able to meet it.
In preparing his magazine’s cover story, Ralph Ginsburg had sent out a poll to over 12,000 psychiatrists, asking them to assess Barry Goldwater’s psychological fitness to be president.
Of the over 12,000 psychiatrists surveyed, slightly more than 2400 responded. Of these, 1189 said that Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president. 657 thought that he was. The remaining 517 said that they didn’t know enough to respond.
By itself, that was not enough to qualify as actual malice. But there was more.
When Ginsburg sent out the poll, many recipients were offended by it. They said that the survey was unprofessional and unreliable, because no reputable psychiatrist would offer an opinion about someone based on second-hand information. Many psychiatrists passed on their complaints about the poll to American Psychiatric Association.
As a result, the medical director of the APA wrote a letter to Ralph Ginsburg expressing the indignation of the APA’s members and warning that if the results the survey were published, the APA would disavow its validity.
So Ginsburg had been notified in advance that the poll was junk psychiatry. He published the article anyway, and Goldwater won the libel suit. The jury awarded him one million dollars in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. Ginsberg appealed the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court but lost.
One might suppose that the fate of Ralph Ginsburg might discourage psychiatrists and psychologists from further speculation on the mental health of public figures. But no, the psychological profiling continued, particularly for Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Clintons, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump.
According to the Times article, Dr. William Doherty, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, has created an “exception” to the Goldwater Rule. Two months ago, Dr. Doherty posted an online manifesto against “Trumpism,” which he claims is a threat to “the well-being of the people we care for and to American democracy itself.” http://citizentherapists.com/manifesto/
More than 2,200 mental health specialists have signed the manifesto.
Dr. Doherty said in an interview that he and the therapists who signed his manifesto were not analyzing Mr. Trump himself, but only his public persona. Thus, they claim to distinguish between “Trumpism” as an ideology, and Trump as an individual.
That’s a nice distinction.
But they should bear in mind that much of what is being said about Trump and his movement right now was said about “Goldwaterism” in 1964. And yet not only were the allegations of Goldwater’s mental problems disproved in court, the senator ended up as a widely respected elder statesman.
The American Psychiatric Association underscored this point earlier this month, when it posted a reminder that violating the Goldwater Rule “is irresponsible, potentially stigmatizing, and definitely unethical.”
Maybe some of the more outspoken members of the psychiatric profession should engage in a little healthy self examination.
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