Friday, February 24, 2012

Power persuades!

Rose Nisenbaum had an emergency fund of $400 in her bank account. She had built up that fortune over a lifetime of careful saving. She needed part of the funds urgently, but the bank wouldn’t let her withdraw any. It was during the worst stage of the Great Depression in the US and the banks had instructions to stop people from withdrawing money.

When all her efforts and pleadings failed, she decided to write to Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States. Members of her family were amused. It was silly to appeal to the president when the banks had strict orders against disbursing cash. Who in the White House was going to bother about the letter from a poor old woman? They asked her to accept the reality and wait until the conditions improved.

She didn’t listen to such wise advice. She wrote to the president. Everyone was shocked when, eight weeks later, she got a response from the White House. She was asked to take a sealed letter, enclosed with the one she received, to her bank.

She promptly took the White House envelope to her bank. It was closed so she rapped on the window and signalled to the manager to let her in. He wouldn’t. He knew very well what she wanted and there was no way he was going let her withdraw cash. He tried to wave her off.

Nisenbaum didn’t go away. She pressed the envelope against the glass pane. Seeing the White House insignia on the envelope, the manager let her in, read the letter to the bank, and promptly allowed her to withdraw cash from her account.

This is based on an account by Hilary Leila Krieger, “Reaching for the Jewish Vote,” in The Jerusalem Post (Israel) of Feb 9, 2012. (Accessed via

Rose Nisenbaum is admirable. In the face of ridicule and in the absence of any assurance of success she wrote to the president of the United States and got her job done. It is truly impressive. But what caught my attention is the power of the White House insignia on the envelope that she pressed against the window pane. When that was combined with the confidence and determination on her face, the manager was readily persuaded to open the door and let her in. Authority sells!

I have been reading in the local newspapers several stories in recent weeks about fake cops. The cheats appear in police uniform in different parts of the city and it’s pretty easy for them to persuade ordinary folks to do just about anything including parting with their cash and jewellery for ‘safekeeping.’ The uniform does the persuasion. Many people don’t even try to check their identity cards. Of course, the impostors are likely to come well equipped with fake ID cards too.

Symbols of power and authority – even empty ones – seem to have high levels of persuasive power.