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The Fact Poll: What Were the Psychiatrists Thinking?

Why did the psychiatrists say what they did about Goldwater?

A key part of the Goldwater v. Ginzburg libel trial was that Fact conducted a poll, in which, according to the magazine, "1,189 psychiatrists said Goldwater was unfit to be president."

Last week, I described how Mr. Burns Roper, a polling expert of the time (1968), leveled a powerful critique of the magazine's survey methods. Beyond that, however, is the question, "What were the psychiatrists thinking?", when they described the Senator as negatively as many of them they did.

Most of the comments sent to the magazine were both very critical and accurately reproduced.

To be sure, Mr. Goldwater's attorneys identified that Fact's publisher, Mr. Ginzburg, had injected some bias into the editing process regarding the comments he had received. Mr. Ginzburg had acknowledged on the witness stand that on one occasion at least he had "plucked" material from one anonymous letter and included it in another, and that in another instance he had condensed a letter, summarizing its contents. Some letters printed as "name withheld" were actually unsigned in the original; printing them as "name withheld" suggested more commitment from the letter-writer than intended. Those exceptions acknowledged, the quoted comments from the psychiatrists often appeared to reflect what those professionals had in fact written.

Before the start of the trial, some psychiatrists who responded were deposed and all recognized their own comments and acknowledged them.

For example, G. T., (I will use initials here) M.D., the Director of the Glen Cove, NY, Community Hospital Mental Health Clinic, had responded to the poll by writing:

"Senator Barry Goldwater gives the superficial appearance of solidity, stability, and honesty. However, my impression is of a brittle, rigid personality structure, based on a soft-spoken continuous demand for power and authority and capable of either shattering like crystal glass or bolstering itself by the assumption of a paranoid stance and more power over others..."

"In allowing you to quote me, which I do, I rely on the protection of Goldwater's defeat at the polls in November; for if Goldwater wins the Presidency, both you and I will be among the first into the concentration camps."

So, what was going through Dr. T.'s and others' minds when they wrote in? Dr. T. had been asked just that question in the deposition.

On May 20th, in the third week of the trial, the defense read comments from five of the doctors. According to the New York Times, all of the five represented their own comments as a "personal and political opinion," as opposed to one that was professional.

Dr. T., when asked by the defense counsel to explain if he really meant that final part about being "first into the concentration camps," responded, "It was written more as a quip." He then added "If I really believed it, I would be somewhat paranoid."

Dr. L. R. S., M.D., of Westport, CT, had taken a different approach in his letter, writing:

...Goldwater suffers from a kind of social and political infantilism in his complete failure to grasp the economic and political realities of the modern world. Playing "cops and robbers" may seem like fun for the John Birchers and reactionaries who support him, but to put at the helm of our nation a bespectacled, grey-haired man with the social comprehension of a four-year-old (who solves problems by going "bang bang" at the bad guys) is as dangerous as putting a child of that age at the controls of a jet airliner.

In his deposition, Dr. S. accused Mr. Goldwater's attorneys of badgering him and intimidating him so as to limit his free speech. Mr. Robb (Mr. Goldwater's attorney), asked, "Are you intimidated?" "Yes, I am," Dr. S. responded. -- People not only judge, but those who judge are, in turn, subject to being judged themselves. That can be troubling -- even intimidating.

The psychiatrists' comments include considerable jargon associated with psychiatry: "brittle, rigid personality structure," "paranoid stance," "infantilism," and "social comprehension," as well as some of the logic associated with 1960s psychodynamic and developmental psychology. Most readers, in my opinion, could fairly assume some professional judgments were behind these remarks, albeit the psychiatrists who were deposed said otherwise.

Some psychiatrists did question the validity of the enterprise, some quite thoughtfully (more on this next week).

At least a few others psychiatrists, however, were simply aggravated by the questions. One wrote:

"Your questionnaire is one of the most asinine, insulting documents I have ever been confronted with through the U.S. mails...,"

Senator Goldwater might have had little to fear from the 2,417 psychiatrists who responded to the poll if they were no more accurate in their judgments than the just-quoted letter-writer. That respondent's conclusion regarding the survey was:

"I can assure you that no self-respecting, clinically-minded, and sincere physician or psychiatrist will answer it."

Notes

The letter by G. T. is on p. 24, by L. R. S. is on p. 28, and "Your questionnaire..." is on p. 44 of Boroson, W. (1964, September/October). What psychiatrists say about Goldwater. Fact, 1, pp. 24-64.

Mr. Ginzburg's acknowledgement of editing was in Burks, E. C. (1968, May 18). Goldwater rests libel suit, charging malicious editing. New York Times, p. 27.

Correction: +7 days: a phrase ("self-respecting, clinically-minded, and sincere physician or") had been omitted inadvertently from the closing quote; it was added. Some adjustment of the wording around the quote also was made.

Copyright (c) 2009 John D. Mayer

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