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Fact Magazine Takes on Barry Goldwater

The clash of free speech and libel law

Psychological profiling assumed many different forms in the years during and after World War II—from the careful, culturally sophisticated work of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to the sometimes crude and always self-interested work of psychological profilers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In 1964, Fact publisher Ralph Ginzburg gave the issue an entirely new twist.

Ginzburg was troubled by candidate Barry Goldwater, whose acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco had emphasized law and order, heaped scorn on “false notions” of equality, and said that extremism “in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Many viewers and audience members, including Richard Nixon, were appalled. The next morning, Ginzburg turned to his managing editor, Warren Boroson, and said that Goldwater didn’t seem “all right.” Boroson suggested a psychological profile, perhaps including interviews with a few psychiatrists.

Ginzburg’s response: “Why not poll every psychiatrist in the country?”

Fact created a one-question survey and got hold of a mailing list. The single question was: “Do you think that Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?" Of the more than 12,000 psychiatrists who received the audacious survey, only 2,400 responded. 1,189 said Goldwater was unfit for office, a number that Ginzburg trumpeted in large type on the cover of Fact. Inside, lurid excerpts from the psychiatrists’ comments filled page after page. In light of the leading question and the low response rate, it was hard to argue that the survey was useful or even valid—except for political purposes. Ginzburg complicated matters by editing, heightening, and sometimes combining responses.

Fact also ran a vivid, oversimplified psychological portrait of Goldwater that had been assembled from magazine articles and other publicly available sources. Warren Boroson, who had read widely in psychoanalysis, admired both Theodor Adorno’s study, The Authoritarian Personality, and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s psychohistorical biography, Young Man Luther. Boroson thought he recognized something familiar in Goldwater.

Boroson’s draft profile charged that Goldwater exemplified what Adorno called the authoritarian personality: a personality developmentally stuck in the anal stage, unable to look up to his father, insecure about his masculinity, and susceptible to intolerance and to fascist political thinking.

As he worked, Boroson managed to get Erikson on the phone, obtaining his tentative blessing. The hypothesis sounded “reasonable,” Erikson told him. The author of Young Man Luther later called back with second thoughts and suggested that Boroson flesh out the idea with more historical and contextual information. This further step was never taken. Instead, Boroson’s draft was rewritten and sensationalized by Ginzburg.

Just before election day, 236,000 copies of Fact hit the newsstands. Goldwater, already far behind in the polls, lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.

Barry Goldwater, not surprisingly, took offense. But what Goldwater did next was surprising: He decided to file a libel suit. As it happens, the United States Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, had just dramatically relaxed traditional libel standards. After New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), it seemed almost anyone could say almost anything about a government official without fear of a libel action. The aggrieved public official now had the difficult task of proving that a journalist or citizen had been reckless or had deliberately published a falsehood about the official.

Goldwater’s chances of winning were unclear. William F. Buckley, Jr., assured his friend that if he brought suit, he would certainly lose—before a liberal New York City jury, no less. Yet Goldwater, determined to win, went ahead.

Goldwater alleged an outrageous libel and a gross violation of medical ethics. He served Ginzburg with legal papers, declined to settle the case, and hired a vigorous and well-organized attorney to represent him. The attorney, Roger Robb, thought the Fact issue was “probably the most outrageous libel I have ever seen.” In court, Goldwater presented himself as the very model of a reasonable public official, a family man who had been greatly wronged.

Though Ginzburg was passionate and saw the press as “the watchdog of American society,” he was up against a powerful politician. Goldwater, out of office after the 1964 election, probably saw a chance to obtain a political advantage by bringing suit. Many supporters wrote to him and cheered him on. “Give Im Hell” [sic], said one. Said another, “I AM GLAD YOU ARE FIGHTING THE SLANDER CASE AGAINST THE GARBAGE SHEET.” Ginzburg, meanwhile, was receiving anti-Semitic hate mail.

It was not a fair fight. Goldwater eventually won, both in district court in New York and on appeal. In a large disappointment for Ginzburg, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting the district court’s $75,000 judgment stand. Ginzburg’s only consolation was a ringing dissent by his liberal heroes, Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. It was an outrage, said Black, that “a person who has suffered no provable harm can recover libel damages solely to punish a defendant who has exercised his First Amendment rights.”

Ginzburg had once described Fact as “not for squares.” If, as seems likely, he was hoping to advance free speech doctrine, it must have been a shock to realize that it was Goldwater, perhaps the ultimate square, who would change legal history. Goldwater v. Ginzburg, along with a related case, established that a public figure could collect damages for libel under Sullivan. As Ginzburg learned, there were limits to the permissiveness of the liberal Warren Court.

As for Goldwater, he was proud of his win on multiple levels. The Fact survey had been denounced by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. His supporters were jubilant. And he had won reelection to the Senate.

In his later years, Goldwater donated his files and newspaper clippings on the case to Arizona State University, where they still reside today and may be consulted by researchers. Such documents “might prove valuable,” he said, “to people who want to write about me in the future.”

Goldwater v. Ginzburg's essentially conservative message—that there are limits to free speech and that psychiatrists may face ethics consequences for commenting on public figures, even in a national emergency—continues to resonate today.

Next time: The American Psychiatric Association views Ginzburg with alarm—and adopts the Goldwater Rule.


Ginzburg, Ralph. Ralph Ginzburg Papers, Accession number 7755, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.

Goldwater, Barry. Personal and Political Papers of Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Arizona Historical Foundation Collection, Arizona State University Libraries, Tempe, Arizona.

Lewis, Anthony (1991). Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. New York: Random House.

Martin-Joy, John (2020). Diagnosing from a Distance: Debates over Libel Law, Media, and Psychiatric Ethics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Material presented in this blog entry appears in different form in Diagnosing from a Distance.

The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater (1964). Fact 1 (5), September-October.

About the Author
John Martin-Joy M.D.

John Martin-Joy, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Diagnosing from a Distance (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and a candidate at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.