A Headline That Changed Politics

One of the most incendiary headlines ever written—”1,189 PSYCHIATRISTS SAY GOLDWATER IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT TO BE PRESIDENT!”—appeared on the cover of Fact magazine (edited by Ralph Ginzburg and designed by Herb Lubalin) one month before the 1964 presidential election in which Senator Barry M. Goldwater was running against Lyndon B. Johnson.

 

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The issue centered on answers to a questionnaire sent to the 12,356 psychiatrists listed by the American Medical Association on the state of mind of this devoutly conservative Republican candidate. Of the 2,417 who replied, 657 said Barry Goldwater was fit for the presidency, 571 declined to take a position, and 1,189 called him unfit in no uncertain terms.

“… all his fears and delusions of persecution, all his infantile fantasies of revenge and dreams of total annihilation of his adversaries found a perfect platform.”

The issue also forever changed the postwar rules of electoral dueling from bloody gentleman’s sport to bloody extreme, gloves-off rumble. Liberals feared the dangerously extreme views that Goldwater held against civil rights legislation, his views on the use of nuclear weapons, and saber-rattling with the USSR and Communist China. Today, there is extreme rhetoric coming from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and similarities also exist between the GOP mainstream reaction to Goldwater’s nomination (he resoundingly lost the national election in large part thanks to tactics like this famous attack ad) and Trump’s candidacy. So, references to Goldwater have returned.

A November 2015 article in the New Republic stated: “Before Goldwater got the nomination, GOP notables and his rivals had attacked him in the fiercest possible terms. Richard Nixon, who was in between presidential runs that year, described Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights as a ‘tragedy.’ New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was a candidate, said, ‘Barry Goldwater’s positions can spell disaster for the party and the country.’ Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, another presidential hopeful, called Goldwaterism a ‘crazy quilt collection of absurd and dangerous propositions.'”

At the convention: “Rockefeller and Scranton tried to exert a moderating influence on the platform, only to be met with heckling and catcalls. Eisenhower said the ruckus of the convention was ‘unpardonable—and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.’ The former president also said that during the convention his young niece had been ‘molested’ by Goldwater-supporting hooligans. The disarray of that convention anticipated some of the rowdiness of Trump events, as in the recent roughing up of a black protester in Birmingham, Alabama, which Trump himself egged on and justified.”

Politics is a dirty business but drilling deep into a candidate’s history is essential. Arguably, when Fact stepped over the line into publicizing psychiatric conjecture, it marked a new era in that drilling, so popular today. Goldwater, incidentally, sued and a federal jury “awarded Goldwater $1 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages, to punish Ginzburg and the magazine for being reckless.” But the die was cast.

 

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