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What is the ‘Goldwater rule’?

United States Senator and nominee for president, Barry Goldwater (1909 - 1998) speaking at an election rally in Madison Square Garden in New York City in October 1964.Getty Images

Last week, 22 psychiatrists and psychologists urged the American Psychiatric Association to revise its controversial “Goldwater rule,” adding to the debate that resurfaced during the 2016 presidential election over whether psychiatrists can ethically offer professional opinions about a public figure’s mental state.

The Goldwater rule is an informal name given to an APA guideline that declares it unethical for psychiatrists to offer professional opinions about a public figure’s mental health. The only exception, according to the rule, is if the psychiatrist personally examines the subject and is granted “proper authorization” to make a public statement.

Some members of the psychiatric community have denounced the rule, arguing that they have a professional duty to voice their opinions about President Trump’s mental fitness, which has been called into question. Last summer, Republican Senator Bob Corker said Trump has “not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”

The Goldwater rule dates to 1973, and was sparked by a controversy that arose nearly a decade earlier. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Fact, a quarterly news magazine with a focus on contentious politics, posed a blunt question to thousands of American psychiatrists: “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?”

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Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona, was running against Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. At the time, Democrats and even Republican opponents criticized Goldwater as an extremist, arguing that his stance against the Soviet Union would lead the US to nuclear war.

In a 1964 special edition of Fact magazine, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” writer and editor Ralph Ginzburg — perhaps best known as the publisher of the boundary-pushing erotic magazine, Eros — raised alarms from the very first sentence.

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“That the Senator is divorced from reality is unfortunate,” Ginzburg wrote. “That he may soon be able to divorce all of us from reality is terrifying.”

In the same issue, psychiatrists offered a similar assessment, referencing Goldwater’s “impulsive, impetuous behavior” and an “inability to disassociate himself ... from extremists.”

One compared Goldwater’s pathological makeup to that of Hitler, Castro, Stalin, and “other schizophrenic leaders.”

Fact reported that it sent out surveys to 12,356 psychiatrists across the US on June 24, 1964, a week after Goldwater secured the Republican nomination. Of the 2,417 psychiatrists who responded, just 657 thought Goldwater was mentally fit.

Then-APA president Daniel Blain was quick to denounce the article, saying the psychiatrists’ statements had no scientific or medical validity.

Goldwater sued the magazine and its editors for libel. He won his case in 1969 after an appeals court ruled that Fact editor Warren Boroson had concluded, before any research, interviews, or polling, that the magazine’s “psychological profile” of Goldwater would paint the senator as “belligerent, suspicious, hot-tempered, and rigid.”

That proved the coverage was based on preconceived opinions, the court ruled.


Emily Williams can be reached at emily.williams@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.