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Warren Boroson, who surveyed psychiatrists on Goldwater, dies at 88

An undated photo provided via the Boroson family shows Warren Boroson, an author and journalist.via Boroson family/NYT

Warren Boroson, a journalist who conducted a survey of psychiatrists that declared 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater mentally unfit to be president — provoking a libel suit from the candidate and prompting a psychiatric association to muzzle its members from ever diagnosing a public figure from afar — died March 12 at his home in Woodstock, New York. He was 88.

The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart ailments, said his wife, Rebecca Boroson.

Goldwater sued for $2 million, and Warren Boroson, who had been the 29-year-old managing editor of the iconoclastic magazine Fact when he initiated the survey for it, feared a judgment against him would commit him to a lifetime of indentured servitude to that Arizona senator.

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A federal jury in New York found in favor of Goldwater, awarding damages of $75,000. But the verdict, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, put most of the blame on editing by others, largely absolving Mr. Boroson, who had to pay only a token 33 cents.

Ethical questions raised by the survey, though, have roiled the psychiatric profession to this day.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the so-called Goldwater rule, declaring that it was unethical for its members “to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”

Only one board member, professor Alan A. Stone of Harvard Law School, voted against the rule, calling it “a denial of free speech and of every psychiatrist’s God-given right to make a fool of himself or herself.”

Since then, some psychiatrists have defied the rule when asked by journalists and others to comment about the emotional and mental state of public figures, including foreign officials, terrorists and, in particular, Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as president. Some have resigned from the association rather than be bound by the rule.

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In 1964, the Fact survey led to Mr. Boroson’s resignation from the magazine. He had suggested polling psychiatrists to Fact’s publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, but quit before the article appeared, in September 1964, because, he said, his draft had been rewritten and sensationalized.

Mr. Boroson had apparently agreed that Goldwater was “out of his mind” and feared for America’s safety if he were ever entrusted with the nation’s nuclear trigger, according to a book by Dr. John Martin-Joy, “Diagnosing From a Distance: Debates Over Libel Law, Media, and Psychiatric Ethics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump” (2020).

Martin-Joy, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, psychiatrist, said that Mr. Boroson had conducted “serious research into the best current thinking on how to prevent a recurrence of fascism,” and that his original draft represented “at least an effort to explain a complex psychological idea to the general public.”

“I think he, with Ginzburg, was important in trying to push forward the frontiers of free speech on behalf of public understanding of the mental health of public figures,” Martin-Joy said. “However, the job they actually did was imperfect.”

Goldwater, who had lost the election in a landslide to the incumbent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, filed suit in 1965.

“It was clearly felt by the court that this met the definition of actual malice, that Ginzburg had creatively edited responses from psychiatrists and that they were departing from what they knew to be facts,” Martin-Joy said. “I think they undermined their own case.”

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Dr. Jacob M. Appel, director of ethics education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York’s Manhattan borough, said that “Boroson’s work in the 1960s had the unintended consequence of muzzling psychiatrists like me today.”

Mr. Boroson recalled in interviews and unpublished notes that his fears about Goldwater’s fitness were piqued when he read that the candidate had suffered two nervous breakdowns — stressful conditions that were later said to have been overstated.

“I said to Ginzburg, ‘Why don’t we ask a few psychiatrists whether a nervous breakdown incapacitates someone for public office?’” Mr. Boroson recalled. “Ginzburg immediately replied: ‘Let’s ask every psychiatrist in the country.’ So we did.”

Fact reached out to all 12,356 members on the American Psychiatric Association’s mailing list, asking them, “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as president of the United States?” Of the 2,417 who responded, 657 answered “Yes,” and 1,189 replied “No.” The rest said they didn’t know enough about the senator’s psyche to make a determination.

Mr. Boroson wrote that the magazine’s 41 pages of excerpted responses constituted “the most intensive character analysis ever made of a living human being.”

The cover article, titled “The Man and the Menace,” was derived from Mr. Boroson’s draft, which was apparently rewritten by Ginzburg’s friend, David Bar-Illan, an Israeli pianist and editor.

“In anger I resigned from Fact,” Mr. Boroson wrote in his notes. “And insisted that my name not be listed as the author of the Bar-Illan article.” The article appeared under Ginzburg’s byline.

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An appeals court concluded that Ginzburg had “deleted most of Boroson’s references to the authoritarian personality and reached the conclusion, which Boroson had not expressed, that Senator Goldwater was suffering from paranoia and was mentally ill.”

Time magazine wrote that the published version depicted Goldwater as “as a paranoiac, a latent homosexual and a latter-day Hitler.”

The Supreme Court upheld the jury award: punitive damages of $25,000 against Ginzburg and $50,000 against the magazine, and $1 in compensatory damages divided among the three defendants, including Mr. Boroson. Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas dissented, citing First Amendment protections.

Warren Gilbert Boroson was born Jan. 22, 1935, in Manhattan. His mother, Cecelia (Wersan) Boroson, was an office manager. His father, Henry, was a teacher.

Mr. Boroson attended Memorial High School in West Nyack, New York, and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1957.

In addition to his wife, Rebecca (Kaplan) Boroson, a retired journalist, he is survived by his sons, Bram and Matthew, and his brother, Dr. Hugh Boroson.

In 1968, four years after the Goldwater survey, Ginzburg sought to conduct a similar survey of psychiatrists regarding Johnson’s mental health. If he succeeded, the results were apparently never published.

Mr. Boroson later wrote for local newspapers and magazines, including Ginzburg’s Avant Garde, under pen names. (Fact, a quarterly, was published from January 1964 to August 1967.) He was the author of more than 20 books, including self-help financial guides. He also taught music, finance and journalism at colleges.

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“What did I learn from the experience?” he wrote in his reflective notes about the Goldwater case. “Not much. I regret not proposing to write a book about Trump when he first became famous: ‘Trump: In Relentless Pursuit of Selfishness.’”