Hizzoners

     My favorite story about Ed Koch was told me by Dan McSwain, a reporter buddy. It was from Dan's first day as a staff reporter at a newspaper.
     Way back when, the Brooklyn Phoenix had a hot story about a parking scandal.
     The New York Times, of course, didn't give a damn about parking in Brooklyn, so the Phoenix, a weekly that died 14 years ago, was beating the story to death.
     On the way to Mayor Koch's press conference, the grizzled old City Hall reporter explained the parking scandal to Dan, and gave him a long, involved question to ask Hizzoner about it.
     OK, then. So Ed Koch steps out and makes a few statements and asks for questions.
     Dan pops up and says, "Dan McSwain, Brooklyn Phoenix," and proceeds to ask the mayor his long, involved question.
     Mayor Koch squints at him. Says: "Who are you?"
     "Dan McSwain, from the Brooklyn Phoenix."
     And the mayor says: "Well, Dan McSwain, from the Brooklyn Phoenix, why don't you sit down and shut up."
     People loved Koch for stuff like that.
     Americans like to think that our political system is not based upon bribes. Which, at a regional and national level, it is.
     Not that I am accusing Koch of taking bribes. I am not. People loved him because he gave the appearance of being above bribery or any other favors - even if the favor was simply public opinion.
     Whereas today, we assume that every politician with any power at all, regional or national, is essentially a whore, with a staff of trained pimps.
     This is not a diatribe. This is a philosophical issue.
     Bribery is one of only two crimes mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The other one is treason. Yet it's unclear to this day just what bribery is.
     This is not my opinion. This is the opinion of John T. Noonan Jr., 86, a federal appeals court judge on senior status at the 9th Circuit, whose 1984 book, "Bribes," was the last word on the subject - up to 1984.
     Noonan, whose footnotes alone run to 100 pages, cites laws, literature and philosophy from more than 4,000 years - back to Babylonia - which repeatedly fail to draw a line between reciprocity (presumably good) and bribery (presumably bad).
     Democracy - our system - endorses reciprocity.
     The people - their businesses, the corporations - want this, that or the other thing.
     And don't We The People have a right to get what we want - to express what we want - and to vote So And So into office to get it?
     Sure we do.
     Don't we have the right to give people gifts to express our appreciation? (Which is good.)
     Sure we do.
     But at what point does it cross the line into bribery? (Which is bad.)
     It's not clear.
     That is, it is clear, but it's usually not prosecutable.
     That is, it is prosecutable, depending upon the political winds.
     Judge Noonan, whom I admire tremendously - for his erudition, his style, for his entire life - is a rather conservative fellow: a believer. I am sure he is, as his tradition says, a "just judge."
     But, upstart that I am, I disagree with Judge Noonan on the basic argument of his book, which he mentions in the Introduction, but does not clarify until page 706, in his last chapter, "The Future of the Bribe."
     Citing as a parallel the obsolescence of slavery, Judge Noonan predicts that "the practice of bribery in the central form of the exchange of payment for official actions will become obsolete."
     That's not what happened, of course. What's happened is that bribery has become the essence of our political system.