Barry Goldwater Strikes Back: A Forgotten Libel Case of the 1960s

The UW American Heritage Center was fortunate in April 2019 to have a visit from Dr. John Martin-Joy, psychiatrist and author who publishes on literary and psychiatric topics.

Dr. John Martin-Joy, psychiatrist and author of Diagnosing from a Distance: Debates over Libel Law, Media, and Psychiatric Ethics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump.
Dr. John Martin-Joy

Dr. Martin-Joy researched the papers of Ralph Ginzburg, a provocative author, editor, publisher, and photojournalist who, among other things, published Fact, a short-lived political journal with a muckraking bent.

The important libel suit Goldwater v. Ginzburg (1966-1970) was of especial interest to Dr. Martin-Joy. The case pitted U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater against Ginzburg for an issue of Fact that maintained through psychiatric “evidence” that Goldwater was unfit for office.

Cover of Fact magazine in 1964 in which psychiatrists assert that Barry Goldwater is unfit for office. Ralph Ginzburg papers, UW American Heritage Center.
A 1964 article in Fact magazine led to what is known as the Goldwater Rule, the American Psychiatric Association’s declaration that it is unethical for any psychiatrist to diagnose a public figure’s condition “unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” Ralph Ginzburg papers, UW American Heritage Center.
Cartoon in Fact magazine alluding to Barry Goldwater's lack of fitness for public office. Ralph Ginzburg papers, UW American Heritage Center.
Cartoon from a 1964 article in Fact magazine alluding to Barry Goldwater’s lack of fitness for public office. Ralph Ginzburg papers, UW American Heritage Center

Dr. Martin-Joy has written a book, Diagnosing from a Distance: Debates over Libel Law, Media, and Psychiatric Ethics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump. The book traces the Goldwater controversy and illustrates the pertinence of Goldwater v. Ginzburg to the current debates over psychiatric ethics, mental health, and libel in the current political era. The book will be out in April 2020 from Cambridge University Press.

Cover of Dr. John Martin-Joy's book that will come out in April 2020 from Cambridge University Press.
Cover of Dr. John Martin-Joy’s book, which will be available in April 2020 from Cambridge University Press. Image courtesy Cambridge University Press.

Below is a post Dr. Martin-Joy shared with us from his research for the forthcoming book:


At the height of the turbulent 1960s, provocative New York publisher Ralph Ginzburg (1929-2006) pushed the boundaries of good taste and of libel law in a series of publications that deliberately aimed to speak truth to power.

Among his most controversial publications was a special issue of Fact magazine (1964).  In the issue, Ginzburg portrayed 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as mentally unstable, unfit for office, and uncomfortable with his own masculinity.  Ginzburg did not interview Goldwater.  Instead, he used books, newspaper articles, and television sources to make his case.  He also surveyed American psychiatrists about Goldwater’s fitness for office—and provided shocking excerpts from comments by hundreds of them.  Goldwater, said one, “has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders.”  According to another, Goldwater was “emotionally unstable, immature, volatile, unpredictable, hostile, and mentally unbalanced.  He is totally unfit for public office and a menace to society.”[i]  For his part, Ginzburg was proud of the special issue, distributed 236,000 copies of it, and regarded the issue as “very real public service.”[ii]

Goldwater had a habit of making simplistic, provocative statements himself.  During the campaign he said that the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” would be feasible in Vietnam.  In his acceptance speech at the 1964 convention, he uttered the memorable phrase that Richard Nixon (among others) thought lost him the election: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.[iii]  But when he saw the special issue of Fact, Goldwater was appalled.  He said losing the election did not bother him.  But reading page after page of psychiatrists’ hostile comments did.  The experience was “rather depressing.”  Now it was impossible to walk down the street in New York without wondering why people were smiling at him.  Was it because they were being friendly and respectful?  Or, he wondered, were they thinking, “there goes that queer or there goes that homosexual, or there goes that man who is afraid of masculinity.”

What could be done?  Overruling his friend William F. Buckley, Jr., Goldwater decided to file a libel suit against Ginzburg and FactGoldwater v. Ginzburg pitted the claims of free speech against the risk of harm to public figures.  Despite the permissive libel standard used by the Supreme Court then and now, Goldwater ultimately won the case—and made a kind of martyr of Ralph Ginzburg.  Ginzburg paid a $75,000 judgment, but he won the honor of a ringing dissent from his hero, liberal Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.  Black would have reviewed the case and found for Ginzburg, he said in his dissent, “because I firmly believe that the First Amendment guarantees to each person in this country the unconditional right to print what he pleases about public affairs.” [iv]


[i] The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater, Fact 1:5 (September-October 1964).
[ii] Quotes from the trial are taken from the stenographer’s transcript of Goldwater v. Ginzburg, Southern District of New York, May 6-22, 1968.  In Ralph Ginzburg Papers, boxes 32-34, accession number 7755, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY.
[iii] Robert A. Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
[iv] Ginzburg v. Goldwater, 396 U.S. 1049 (1970), the Supreme Court’s denial of Ginzburg’s petition for writ of certiorari in the case.  Includes dissent by Justice Black, January 26, 1970.  Accessed on 8-22-18 at https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/396/1049/.
 

About the author:

John Martin-Joy, M.D. is a psychiatrist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has published articles on literary and psychiatric topics, including Emerson’s influence on Hawthorne’s “The Old Manse” and on Hemingway’s nonfiction; the ethics of psychiatrists diagnosing public figures they have never met; and the role of defense mechanisms over the life span. His awards include a Laughlin fellowship from the American College of Psychiatrists and a Dupont-Warren Research Fellowship from the Harvard Department of Psychiatry.

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