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Libel in Fact: Did Senator Goldwater Suffer from a Nervous Breakdown?

The defense pleads "the truth" against charges of libel.

This was four years after a special issue of Fact, printed toward the end of the Senator's 1964 campaign for president against Lyndon Johnson, had depicted the Senator as mentally unstable, temper-prone, and paranoid. The senator lost the election in a landslide.

The defendants in the trial were Ralph Ginzburg and Warren Boroson, the publisher and managing editor, respectively, of Fact magazine. The defendants' attorney, Harris Steinberg, said in his opening statement:

"I'm going to show you there's nothing false in that magazine. It was good journalism, although racy and tough and not for the old lady from Dubuque."

The statements quoted and reported in Fact, that Mr. Goldwater was mentally unstable, had an uncontrollable temper, was hypermasculine to cover up insecurities, and would be a danger to the country, were (the defendants believed), "true and proper." "We plead truth," Mr. Steinberg remarked at another point.

One key to the trial was whether Mr. Goldwater had indeed suffered nervous breakdowns as Fact and other magazines had reported. Mr. Goldwater's wife, Peggy, had stated he had suffered such a breakdown to reporters. On the witness stand, however, she had clarified that a "nervous breakdown" meant, to her, overwork.

Mr. Goldwater denied ever having any mental disturbance.

During his cross-examination of Mr. Goldwater, Mr. Steinberg pressed the point. As the experienced defense attorney and equally experienced politician parried in court, laughter often erupted. As depicted in the New York Times:

"'Senator,' asked Mr. Steinberg, 'didn't you hear rumblings among the American people during the campaign that you were a nut?'"

"After Mr. Goldwater had demurred with a smile, Mr. Steinberg jokingly came back to the theme later: 'Nobody's ever looked at you like you're nuts?'"

"The former Arizona Senator responded with a quip: 'We'll, I've had some looks that I've had my suspicions about.'"

Mr. Steinberg's serious point was that it was vital for the American public to understand the psychological make-up of a presidential candidate.

In apparent contradiction of some of Mr. Goldwater's testimony, Mr. Steinberg quoted from medical records kept by Mr. Goldwater's physician that the Senator had a history 20 years before of "emotional upsets" and had received injections of testosterone from his physician on four occasions after complaining of feeling tired.

Mr. Goldwater denied some of the accusations, claiming, "I've never had emotional upsets. That's the doctor's own phraseology," and that he had never experienced any psychiatric difficulties, and never seen a psychiatrist.

More pointedly, referring to the survey of psychiatrists printed in Fact, which described him, among other things, as "grossly psychotic," and "schizophrenic," Mr. Goldwater noted he had never consulted any of those psychiatrists professionally, and doubted he ever had even met any of them socially.

The testimony so far is quite interesting, but doesn't quite coordinate with what we now understand about personality. On the one hand, Mr. Goldwater's claim that he had never been seen by the psychiatrists who commented on his personality surely carries some weight. An in-person evaluation conveys important information about an individual.

On the other hand, Mr. Goldwater's statement that none of the psychiatrists knew him seems to imply that personality cannot not be judged "from a distance" -- but some aspects of personality surely can be judged from examining a person's public expressions and behavior. See, for example, this post on presidential personality.

A more central issue is the meaning of "nervous breakdown."

In 1964, as today, there was no technical definition of a "nervous breakdown" -- it is a concept used by the public. A 1998 article by Lisa Rapport of Wayne State University, and her colleagues, R. Matthew Todd, Mark Lumley, and Sebastiano Fisicaro, concluded that public use of the term usually indicated a serious but time-limited mental state that occurred in response to a severe personal stress.

On the basis of their research, they equated the most common use of "nervous breakdown" to the psychiatric diagnosis of "Adjustment Disorder," a relatively mild affliction among today's psychiatric diagnoses. An Adjustment Disorder describes (approximately) a person's temporary difficulty coping with changed or changing circumstances.

That said, "nervous breakdown" has been used in many different ways. Consequently, people can read what they will into the conflicting testimony as to whether Mr. Goldwater suffered from one or not.

People's decisions about whether Goldwater suffered a nervous breakdown will depend upon their use of the term, as well as possibly on other factors: whether they think Senator Goldwater or Mr. Ginzburg was more likely to tell the truth, or even on whether they favor free speech or public restraint.

Without an agreed-upon meaning of nervous breakdown, it would be difficult for any trial to determine whether Mr. Goldwater had experienced one or not -- or what it would mean if he had. All we know is that his wife brought it up, and it was reported in the media, and those reports were repeated in Fact.

More on the trial next week...


"I'm going to show you..." Burks, E. C. (1968, May 7). Goldwater never mentally ill, wife testifies at libel trial. New York Times, p. 21.

"We plead truth..." "...didn't you hear rumblings..." Burks, E. C. (1968, May 10). Defense attacks calm Goldwater. New York Times, p. 15.

Nunnally, J. (1961). Popular conceptions of mental health: Their development and change. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Rapport, L. J., Tood, R. M., Lumley, M. A., Fiscaro, S. A. (1998). The diagnostic meaning of ‘nervous breakdown' among lay populations. Journal of Personality Assessment, 71, 242-252.

Corrections: +14 hours after posting: the spelling of Mr. Ginzburg's name was corrected, as was another typographical error. Also, some light copy edits of the concluding paragraphs were included. My thanks to the individual who commented so as to alert me to the spelling error re. Mr. Ginzburg's name. +16 further copy edits of last few paragraphs. Sept. 12th, 2010, another spelling error corrected; quotation marks disambiguated for quote from NYTimes.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer