The Daily Heller: The Mental Health of Presidential Candidates Has Long Been an Issue

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American presidents have not always been the best or the brightest. All have been flawed—some with benign quirks, others with pathological behavior (depending on one’s point of view, of course).

In 1964, I was actively working at low-level jobs for liberal Democratic clubs in New York. After JFK (who I idolized) was assassinated, I threw my support behind LBJ. His opponent, Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, was leader of the post-McCarthy right-conservative movement of the Republican party. Compared to Donald J. Trump, Goldwater—who scared the bejesus out of kids and adults alike by threatening to use atomic bombs as tactical weapons against China—was by today’s standard a moderate. And in hindsight he was remarkably prescient about MAGA, as this quote suggests: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Nonetheless, 60 years ago, he cast a long, dark shadow over the political state of the liberal United States. His hawkish rhetoric triggered the prototype of negative campaign propaganda, the so-called “Daisy Ad,” which used scare tactics and was considered so inflammatory (and contrary to electoral sobriety) that it aired only once on TV. Once was enough to make history.

Another defamation of Goldwater was a controversial 1964 issue of the acerbic Fact magazine (designed by Herb Lubalin), in which real psychiatrists provided their unvarnished opinions on the psychological fitness of the presidential candidate. It was edited by the indie publishing provocateur Ralph Ginzburg.

Psychiatrists were asked to weigh in on the senator’s mental capacity to serve as president. One such response is reminiscent of the contemporary tenor: “I believe Goldwater has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders.” As is this: “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.”

After losing the general election, Goldwater successfully sued Fact for libel; the $75,000 settlement put the publication out of business. A few years later, the American Psychiatric Association issued the “Goldwater Rule” that forbids its members from publicly discussing the mental health of a public figure.

The irony is that this rule, while appropriate, did not foresee the advent of a Trump-style madman who embodies, amid other valid reasons for disqualification, the core declaration that he is “Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” … again.

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