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Psychiatrists Divided Over The 'Goldwater Rule' In The Age Of Trump


In the 1964 presidential race, Barry Goldwater's political extremism was depicted as mentally unstable by his critics.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Governor Scranton - the day before the convention, he called Goldwaterism a, quote, "crazy quilt collection of absurd and dangerous position." Or this man - Governor Romney. In June, he said Goldwater's nomination would lead to the, quote, "suicidal destruction of the Republican Party."

CORNISH: Before the election, more than a thousand psychiatrists in a survey declared Goldwater psychologically unfit to be president. It was published in FACT Magazine. After Goldwater lost the election, he sued the magazine for libel and won. Several years later, this led the American Psychiatric Association to establish the Goldwater rule. It forbids its members from making public comments on public figures they haven't personally examined. Now, some APA members want to revisit the rule to raise concerns they have about President Trump. Jane Mayer wrote about this in the current issue of The New Yorker. She joins us now in the studio. Welcome to the program.

JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.

CORNISH: So take us inside this debate in the APA. Who's leading the charge, and what are their arguments?

MAYER: Well, one of the lead characters is Dr. Jerrold Post, who founded the CIA's division that deals with political profiling from a psychological standpoint. He's a psychiatrist who's been doing reports on leaders' psyches for years for the CIA. He wants to sound off about President Trump, who he has grave concerns about from a psychological standpoint.

CORNISH: What's the value, he thinks, in speaking publicly and getting those thoughts out there, that - a kind of almost diagnosis?

MAYER: Well, he argues that he and other psychiatrists have the expertise in this area and that they are being silenced because of the APA's ethics rule. And so instead, you have all kinds of amateurs out there giving diagnoses of what they think is wrong with President Trump's psychological makeup. But they don't really know what they're talking about. Meanwhile, the psychiatrists are not allowed to weigh in.

CORNISH: So you mentioned this as an ethics rule. What are the backers of this code saying?

MAYER: They've argued very clearly - the head of the APA has said that it's unethical and irresponsible for psychiatrists to give a diagnosis of a patient that they've never personally examined and who's consent they don't have to go public. There's a meeting coming up where the APA is having its annual meeting, and they're going to slug it out again about this.

CORNISH: You said slug it out. Just how big of a groundswell is this, right?

MAYER: I think it's a smaller faction, but I've noticed it's been popping up all across the country where psychologists and psychiatrists have wanted to speak out. There was one in particular in the meeting where the Washington branch of the APA was debating this. There were psychiatrists taking both sides, and it was fascinating. And one of them, John Zenner, was arguing that psychiatrists are doctors and the AMA itself has an ethics code that requires them to serve society. And he felt that there is a duty to protect and speak out about what he regards as impetuous behavior by the president, that the psychiatrists have a responsibility to address that issue because they understand fragile psychological makeup.

CORNISH: Now, if you are a person who is a patient and you hear this kind of language in conversation, this would raise concerns - wouldn't it? - about privacy, what psychiatrists really think of you. I mean, is there - are there other reasons here why the APA might not want to go down this road?

MAYER: Well, yeah, and one of the issues that came up during the debate in Washington was a number of the psychiatrists pointed out that they might come up with differing diagnoses of the president. Some of them were talking about the possibility that he was a malignant narcissist, and others were talking about him being impetuous or having a rage reaction. And they worried that if they came up with different diagnoses that contradicted each other, it would undermine the authority of the profession.

CORNISH: Right, if - I mean, not just if, probably would (laughter) and they would be just another group of people that you see as political experts.

MAYER: Exactly. I mean - and that's what happened when they weighed in on Goldwater and they lost the libel suit against Goldwater. It really tarnished the reputation of the profession, and that's what the APA is trying to protect against.

CORNISH: Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, thank you for coming in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MAYER: So great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GELKA'S "EAU ROUGE PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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