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The Fact Magazine Libel Trial: Lessons from Senator Goldwater's Life (and a Note on Mr. Burks)

What Goldwater's later life said about the trial...

I have been writing about the aftermath of the Fact libel trial, a trial that centered on Senator Goldwater's claim that he had been libeled in Fact magazine. The people central to the trial had judged each other's characters -- often before the legal procedings had begun. My intent is to explore whether the lives of these individuals after the trial might further clarify the proceedings, including which judgments (if any) were accurate. Among the most important individuals to consider is Senator Goldwater. It was an analysis of his character, after all, that set the legal case in motion.

The libel trial established that Fact magazine had described Senator Goldwater as being ready to risk the nuclear annihilation of the United States (more so than other leaders) so as to prove his own masculinity. Psychiatrists' comments published in the magazine labeled the Senator "psychotic," "borderline psychotic," "unsure of his masculinity," "narcissistic," and "grandiose" (and perfectly normal by a few other psychiatrists). Surely, the Senator's future life would reveal how accurate those assessments were.

After the trial, Senator Goldwater made out well. Despite being on the wrong end of the 1964 landslide vote that re-elected President Lyndon B. Johnson (Goldwater carried only six states), he was returned to the Senate in 1968 by Arizona voters, and served three more terms there, before retiring in 1987. He died in 1998, at the age of 89, having served five terms as the U.S. senator from Arizona. Many credit Goldwater with bringing stability to the Republican party during President Nixon's Watergate scandal. It was Mr. Goldwater who personally delivered a message from the Republican party that prompted President Nixon to resign rather than face impeachment.

Already in 1980, the Arizona Senator was acknowledged as a founder of a new conservative movement that would go on to sweep Ronald Reagan into the presidency. Mr. Goldwater's strand of conservatism was centered on keeping the government out of people's personal lives. He believed strongly in fiscal restraint, in the separation of church and state, and in abortion choice. He had been troubled at having his masculinity questioned in Fact magazine's election issue; perhaps owing to that experience he worked actively in support of gay rights throughout his later career.

Goldwater's relation to journalists remained prickly after the trial, and when journalists at the New York Times and Washington Post began to publish stories, in 1980, about secret sales of arms to anti-communists in Afghanistan, Goldwater argued that the reporters ought to be tried for treason.

Regarding journalists, I have relied in these posts on the work of Edward C. "Ned" Burks who reported for The New York Times on the libel trial. Several years before the Fact trial, Mr. Burks had himself been convicted of defamation of character against officials in the Dominican Republic. He had fled the country safely and his trial was held in absentia. Mr. Burks must often have considered the relationship between the accusations made against him by the government of the Domincan Republic and the accusations made against Mr. Ginzburg and Fact magazine by Senator Goldwater. Mr. Burks worked for The New York Times for four decades, ending as an editor in the Times' Washington Bureau. Mr. Burks died at age 62 in December, 1983.

Returning to considerations of Senator Goldwater: Regardless of one's political opinions, it seems clear that the Senator was not schizophrenic or psychotic or a compensated psychotic as many of the psychiatrists quoted in Fact magazine had suggested. Rather, his subsequent acts indicated that he maintained his family life as well as many politicians do, he handled his Senatorial powers judiciously, and he contributed to his party and to the nation in many ways.

Many influences promoted the wrongful judgments made of Senator Goldwater's personality in Fact magazine, including the woeful state of psychiatric diagnosis in the 1960s, political bias, and the fear of nuclear war that swept the nation. I have discussed these in earlier posts.

What is new here is how an examination of Senator Goldwater's later life reminds us that many judgments of character - even judgments made by trained professionals - can turn out to be wrong. Although professional judgments of personality and psychopathology are often more accurate than in the 1960s, such judgments always involve probabilities, and a certain amount of error is always to be expected.

Another aftermath of the trial was the issues it posed for the psychiatrists who responded to Fact's poll. I will address that in a forthcoming post.


Much of the material on the key figures here come from remembrances and obituaries of the key individuals involved including:

Anonymous (1983, Dec. 12th). Edward C. Burks, 62; A journalist 4 decades. New York Times, p. B23.

Barnes, B. (1998, May 30th). Barry Goldwater, GOP hero, dies. Washington Post, p. A01.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer