Libel in Fact Magazine: Judging Goldwater by Psychological Theory

Can a theory explain Goldwater's personality?

Posted Dec 13, 2009

Sometimes we might want to use a psychological theory to describe an individual's personality.  In recent posts, I have drawn on examples of how we judge others from Fact magazine's 1964 coverage of Senator Barry Goldwater.  

Shortly after Senator Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president in 1964, Fact Magazine's publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, and his editor, Warren Boroson, developed an idea for an upcoming issue of their magazine.  The newly-planned coverage would explore Senator Goldwater's personality and whether the Senator was psychologically fit to become president.

The resulting issue contained two articlesThe first article is the focus here.  In it, Mr. Ginzburg analyzed Senator Goldwater's personality. Mr. Ginzburg had started with a draft prepared by his editor, Mr. Boroson.

Mr. Boroson's draft had used a psychological theory about authoritarian people to understand Senator Goldwater.  Mr. Ginzburg's final published article was quite different from Mr. Boroson's draft.  The draft came to light, however, in a trial of May, 1968 in New York City that ensued after Senator Goldwater sued Fact magazine for libel.

During the trial, Mr. Boroson testified that to prepare his draft of the article, he had read extensively about the psychology of men in high office and the tensions they faced. He decided to analyze Mr. Goldwater's character according to a then noteworthy psychological theory: the "Authoritarian Personality."

The Authoritarian Personality was described by the German social philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, in collaboration with the psychologists Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford (Sanford video here).

Informed by a research program of in-depth interviews and scale-development, the researchers described the Authoritarian individual as someone who sought strong leadership and willingly submitted to it, who followed an allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong, and who experienced creative ideas as dangerous. Authoritarian people possessed a relatively simplistic comprehension of how the world worked and, in turn, believed in simple answers to complex problems. According to the theory, they were driven to such positions by inner feelings of inadequacy, fear, and rage.

Mr. Boroson had read this work and believed it described key aspects of Senator Goldwater's character.  Mr. Boroson also contacted the eminent child psychoanalyst and researcher Erik H. Erikson for assistance with the article.  After Mr. Ginzburg altered the focus away from authoritarianism, Mr. Boroson reflected on what had happened and subsequently resigned from Fact magazine.

The New York Times described Mr. Boroson, who was 33 during the 1968 trial, as "a bespectacled, soft-spoken man with wavy dark hair."  His defense attorney in the libel suit was Mr. Stanley S. Arkin. According to the Times, Mr. Arkin led Mr. Boroson through a series of questions concerning his work:

"'Did you seek to create a false impression of Senator Goldwater?'  'Did you knowingly try to defame him?'  'Did you knowing say anything false about him?'"

"Each time the witness responded, 'No'".

Mr. Boroson next underwent what the Times characterized as a "biting cross-examination" at the hands of Mr. Robb, the attorney for Senator Goldwater. At one point, Mr. Boroson shared his belief that a Presidential candidate had to face criticism "no matter how vituperative, no matter how severe." Mr. Boroson then added that he had no desire to damage Mr. Goldwater personally.

Mr. Robb, asked pointedly, "Nothing personal, eh?"

Evaluating personality, however, is often inescapably personal: the word "personality" begins with "personal."  Even if a scientist aspires to impartiality and uses reasonable scientific theories to explain someone's character, the evaluation will be received by a person who might in turn feel accepted, or rejected, or otherwise evaluated.  Based on this, I suggest that:

Judgments of personality almost always get personal -- whether this is intended or merely a collateral effect. 

Regardless of this personal aspect, we often need to judge others' characters. 

Mr. Boroson's original unpublished draft represented one reasonable attempt to understand Senator Goldwater. Mr. Boroson used a reputable psychological theory of the time to consider the Senator's personality -- a theory which, in updated versions, continues to inform the field.

Fact's publisher, and the psychiatrists, attorneys, judge and jury, all were trying to grasp Senator Goldwater's personality and whether the Senator had been libeled by the articles in Fact. Each party to the dispute employed a different approach to understanding the Senator, and each party brought his or her own unique perspectives to the task.

The perspectives applied to Senator Goldwater's personality, whether driven by scientific theory or a moral or legal perspective, provided a piece of puzzle of who the Senator was.  And because those approaches targeted the Senator, and led to judgments of him, any of those judgments easily could have become personal. 

Notes

The quotes "biting cross-examination," "...no matter how severe...," "Nothing personal, eh?" was from Burks, E. C. (1968, May 22). Ginzburg defends Goldwater Story. New York Times, p. 44.

The quotes about Mr. Boroson's appearance and replies of "No" were, and Mr. Ginzburg's "No," and "I meant to say," all were in in Burks, E. C. (1968, May 21). Defendant denies intent to libel as Goldwater, p. 32.

Some of the history is also drawn from Mr. Boroson's account of his work, posted by him in an August 10th, 2009, comment on this series.

Revisions: +1 hour after posting; +12 hours after posting, reworking opening  paragraphs, +36 hours after posting.  All these were copy edits.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer