In the May 18, 2007, issue the APA Ethics Committee reminded us of
the "Goldwater Rule," which defines as unethical the expression
of an opinion about a person who has not been examined. Readers today might be
interested in some details of the embarrassing episode in the history of our
profession that led to the Goldwater Rule.
The September/October 1964 issue of Fact magazine published the
findings of its mail survey about the fitness of [Republican] Sen. Goldwater
to be president. A questionnaire was sent to 12,356 psychiatrists, and 2,417
responded. A total of 571 said that "they did not know enough about
Goldwater to answer the question, 657 said that he was psychologically fit,
and 1,189 said that he was not," according to the article.
Excerpts from some of the responses were published, many characterizing the
candidate as "immature," "impulsive,""
megalomanic," "paranoid," "rigid,""
narcissistic." A small number offered specific diagnoses, such as
schizophrenia. Many characterized him as unstable, which was more than a
simple description since "emotionally unstable personality" was a
diagnostic term in the DSM. Some negative opinions were couched in
nontechnical language. There were many psychodynamic formulations, spun from
the limited information available (for example, "inwardly a frightened
person who sees himself as weak and threatened by strong virile power around
him—and that his call for aggressiveness and the need for individual
strength and prerogatives is an attempt to defend himself against and to deny
his feelings of weakness and danger.") Some respondents offered
psychodynamic explanations of Goldwater's supporters. In the early 1960s
psychological understanding was a major focus of American psychiatry.
Much was made of the fact that Goldwater had a history of " two
nervous breakdowns," that such a person should never be president, that
there was risk of recurrence under stress, and that he might then launch a
In contrast, others pointed out that on the basis of a similar history,
Lincoln might have been disqualified to be president. An anonymous
psychiatrist in Florida wrote: "The names of psychiatrists and
psychologists who answer this should be made public so we can see which ones
use crystal balls."
Dr. Lawrence Friedman, dean of the Los Angeles Institute of Psychoanalysis,
responded to the survey with guidance for psychiatrists who are asked to give
an opinion about a public figure: "I shall do everything I can to help
defeat Mr. Goldwater, but I shall point to his ideas, his statements, his
political orientation, and his associations, not to his psychology. There is
enough political evidence to defeat him with. I would like to see
your magazine present that information, and not waste your facilities
on an approach which is neither right nor effective."