How Power Corrupts

Harold Goldstein

History is full of examples of how basically decent people were corrupted by having achieved power, or wealth or status. Something happens to you when you attain a superior position: you begin to think you are entitled to it because of your innate superiority, and to look down on other people, even though when you were down there among them you felt they were your equals.

I had an experience that illustrates this, and although it was many years ago I still feel the emotions that ran through me so strongly that night.

I was traveling to Europe on business for my employer, the United States Government. In those days, the late 1950's, there were only propeller planes on the New York to Paris run; they were slow, taking 14 hours for the trip, and they stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, for re-fueling. The Government believed that its representatives should be able to put in a full day's work when they traveled on business, and so they should have a good night's sleep while traveling. So I was informed that I would be entitled to a berth to sleep in whenever I had to travel overnight. Berths on airplanes cost an extra $70, which was a lot of money in those days.

Our PanAm plane left Idlewild Airport (now J.F. Kennedy Airport) early in the evening. After dinner trays had been cleared up, the stewardess started making up one of the berths over the seats (where now luggage racks hang). When she finished making up the berth, she stopped, and went on to other things. It began to dawn on me that only one berth had been made up, although the plane was nearly full of passengers. I realized that I would have to get up and climb up into the berth in the faces of a plane-load of envious passengers who considered themselves just as good as I and wondered who the hell I thought I was. I shrank into my seat and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. As it occurred to me that the realization that only one berth had been made up was beginning to dawn on other passengers as well, and as I imagined that they were beginning to look around the plane to see if they could spot the self-important wretch who thought he rated a berth while everyone else tried to sleep in their seats, I found myself shrinking into my seat even more. I must by that time have been about four inches tall, and shrinking further. I fleetingly had the wild hope that the plane would plunge into the sea and drown us all before I had to climb into the berth.

At the same time, something else was beginning to grow in me: a feeling that, why not? Am I to be a slave to other people's envy? What makes them think I'm not worthy of special treatment? Was any of them doing the work of our beloved Nation, the one founded by Washington, Jefferson and all them, and therefore in need of a night's sleep? And so on, waves of cringing embarrassment were followed by waves of self-justification.

So when the lights were finally turned low in the passenger cabin and the stewardess tapped me on the shoulder to summon me to slumber, I winced and also gritted my teeth, and as I climbed up to the berth over the seats I calmly stepped on the neck of an old lady who was obviously the inferior of anyone who had a berth on a PanAm plane to Paris.

So power and status do corrupt, and I warn readers of this memoir to watch out for their necks around me.