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This article is why psychiatrists were banned from diagnosing politicians like Trump

“It is ... abundantly clear to me that he has never forgiven his father for being a Jew,” wrote one psychiatrist about Barry Goldwater. 

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

In 1964, Fact magazine — an often provocative, outlandish political publication — sent a survey questionnaire to all 12,356 members of the American Psychiatric Association, asking: “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as president of the United States?”

About half the 2,400 psychiatrists who responded said either Goldwater — the Republican candidate for president, who was rumored to have had nervous breakdowns — was fit for the office or they didn’t know enough to make a call.

The other half? Hoo boy. Let’s just say they had a lot of opinions and theories about his mental inadequacy they were not afraid to share. Here are a few of their comments:

  • “Barry Goldwater’s mental instability stems from the fact that his father was a Jew while his mother was a Protestant,” one respondent wrote.
  • “I believe Goldwater has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders,” wrote another.

And it went on:

  • “The core of [his] paranoid personality is ... his anality and latent homosexuality.”
  • “From TV appearances it is apparent that Goldwater hates and fears his wife.”
  • “It is ... abundantly clear to me that he has never forgiven his father for being a Jew.”
  • “I find myself increasingly thinking of the early 1930s and the rise of another intemperate, impulsive, counterfeit figure of a masculine mane, namely, Adolf Hitler.”
  • “He is a mass-murderer at heart and ... a dangerous lunatic. ... Any psychiatrist who does not agree with the above is himself psychologically unfit to be a psychiatrist.”

There were a handful of dissenters:

  • “It takes a certain amount of psychopathology to become President and there is no evidence that Goldwater has any more than any of his predecessors in the past 60 year.”
  • “What type of yellow rag are you operating? I have never in my life witnessed such a shabby attempt to smear a political candidate.”

Fact magazine called this “the most intensive character analysis ever made of a living human being.”

It was also a complete embarrassment to the field of psychiatry. Immediately after the publication of the story, the APA railed against it in the press, telling the New York Times:

Fact, instead of pub­lishing any kind of profes­sional opinion, had published “a hodgepodge” of the personal political opinions of psychia­trists. The medical association said that Fact had indulged in “yellow journalism.”

It led the APA to create its now famous “Goldwater Rule” in 1973, which forbids its members from publicly discussing the mental health of a public figure. It was also the beginning of the end for Fact. After his election loss, Goldwater successfully sued the magazine for libel; the $75,000 settlement put the small publication out of business.

Recently, the APA ethics board released an opinion that reaffirmed and even expanded the scope of the rule. It’s an issue of hot debate in psychiatry circles, especially considering that President Trump has been the subject of many psychological profiles in the press. Even psychiatrists who agree it’s generally inappropriate to diagnose a politician from afar think the rule is too extreme.

You can read the infamous article right here (it starts on page 25). As you can see, some of the respondents did disagree with the premise of the question. But perhaps the damage was done by the cover image alone.

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