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Libel: Fact, Fiction, Doubt & Barry

5 minute read

1,189 PSYCHIATRISTS SAY GOLD WATER IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT TO BE PRESIDENT! That determinedly flamboyant headline dressed the cover of Fact magazine one month before the presidential election of 1964. The entire issue was an examination of the “unconscious of a conservative,” based largely on answers to a questionnaire sent to the 12,356 psychiatrists listed by the American Medical Association. 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—the latter in no uncertain terms. Some of their opinions: “emotionally unstable,” “immature,” “cowardly,” “grossly psychotic,” “paranoid,” “mass murderer,” “amoral and immoral,” “chronic schizophrenic” and “dangerous lunatic.” One psychiatrist even felt that a proposed Goldwater visit to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden “is enough to convince me of his strong identification with the authoritarianism of Hitler, if not identification with Hitler himself.”

The unprofessional—not to say unbalanced—nature of such remarks brought immediate condemnation from the A.M.A. and the American Psychiatric Association. It also brought a $2,000,000 libel suit from Goldwater against Fact, Publisher Ralph Ginzburg and his managing editor. Last week the suit finally came to trial.

The issue, however, was not simply whether Fact had been full of fiction. Senator Goldwater was then a particularly public figure, and the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for such persons to win a libel suit. To avoid stifling the free-speech right to criticize government leaders, the court since 1964 has required proof that the alleged libeler had “malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth. Just two weeks ago, the test became stiffer still. Beyond “reckless disregard,” the court added the necessity of proving that the libeler “entertained serious doubt” about the truth of his accusation.

But Goldwater was uncowed, and last week he started to make his case in a federal district court in New York City. What had particularly galled him was an article by Publisher Ginzburg.* In it, Ginzburg wondered whether it was “possible that Goldwater’s nervous breakdowns were provoked by his intense anxiety about his manhood.” Goldwater testified that he had “never had any doubts about it.” Calm and comfortable in the witness chair, he declared flatly that he had not had a nervous breakdown either. In fact, he said, “I have never talked to a psychiatrist in my life.”

He was baffled by some of the psychiatric allegations. “I don’t know what an anal character would be. I tried to look it up in a dictionary, but I couldn’t find it.” Asked about the written charges that he feared and hated his wife, he replied, “I love my wife. I still do and always will. I don’t know how you hate somebody you love.” The whole business had “upset” him greatly, he said. He could take the usual sniping, “but when you come up with something like that that weighs several tons, the effect is rather depressing.”

Loo Loo. The masculinity slur especially worried him, and still does. “I come from a family that has pride in family, pride in ancestors.” He also felt that people in the street were thinking, “There goes that queer, there goes that homosexual, or there goes that man who is afraid of his masculinity.” As to his attitude toward Hitler, his lawyer introduced letters written to his young children during World War II. Said one: Hitler “is a bad mistake God made once. He doesn’t make many, but when He does, they are loo loos.”

Under crossexamination, Goldwater remained unruffled. He was asked if he “knew there were rumblings among the American people that you were nuts?” “No,” came the even answer, “I wouldn’t say that was so.” Q: Didn’t you know whether you were being called a nut? A: I think any man in public life would have to answer yes to that question. The defense is attempting to show, as Ginzburg’s lawyer said in his opening statement, that the issue’s various articles were certainly “racy, tough, and not for the old lady in Dubuque,” but that they were “good journalism” or at least fair comment or, at the very least, not libel.

Why Sue? But the burden of proof is still with Goldwater, and his side has not yet tried to demonstrate that Ginzburg entertained serious doubts about the truth of what he was publishing. Indeed, many uninvolved lawyers who have dropped in to watch (and there have been an unusual number) do not see how Goldwater can possibly win. Even if he should, they point out, the appeals court might well overturn any verdict in his favor.

So why did he bother to sue? Already, Wife Peggy has had to spend some doubtless distasteful time on the stand describing him during their courtship as “very ardent, a very ardent suitor”; a son and daughter will also testify. Some cynics suggest that it will not hurt Goldwater’s current Arizona campaign for the Senate to have his name in the papers and to clear up any lingering question about his stability. But the best explanation, as it often is with Barry Goldwater, is to take him at face value. He did not like what Fact’s editors said about him, and he does not want to let them get away with it. “These are nothing but out-and-out lies,” he testified, “and I don’t think any man or woman in America should be made to tolerate these things.”

*Ginzburg was previously the publisher of Eros, which folded when he was convicted of sending obscene material through the mails and sentenced to five years. Two years after Goldwater filed suit, Fact also stopped publication. Ginzburg now puts out Avant-Garde (TIME, April 26).

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