Friday, December 16, 2022

1984 NY Times book review of Judge John Noonan's Book: "BRIBES: the intellectual history of a moral idea"

Judge John Noonan of the Ninth Circuit wrote a wonderful book on bribery.  It would make excellent holiday gift.  Judge Noonan, appointed by President Reagan, was a wonderful scholar who also wrote a book on Eleventh Amendment state sovereign immunity. From December 22, 1984 New York Times:

Books of The Times; The Ageless Bribe

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December 22, 1984, Section 1, Page 15Buy Reprints
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BRIBES. By John T. Noonan Jr. 839 pages. Macmillan. $29.95.

It stinks,'' said a Federal judge presiding at the bribery trial of a member of the House of Representatives caught in an Abscam sting. The reader of John T. Noonan's study of bribes will certainly get a noseful. In but a few of his 839 pages he mentions 43 mayors, 44 judges, 60 legislators and 260 sheriffs and policemen indicted for corruption in the 1970's, not to mention four governors and former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who once advised a contractor who was being asked for a Nixon-Agnew campaign contribution: ''Tell them you gave at the office.'' His office. Mr. Agnew had a point. Between a campaign contribution and a bribe, Senator Russell Long said, there is ''almost a hair's line of difference.''

It all started with religion. Mr. Noonan points out that in the Old Testament there are rules about sacrifices clearly meant to warn people that God does not take bribes. But the word ''redemption,'' he points out, meant that Christ had bought back mankind from damnation. That notion has a bearing on the 1,000-year struggle of the church to justify offerings to clergy while avoiding the charge of condoning simony - the sin named for Simon Magus who had offered money to St. Peter in return for instruction on how to gain spiritual powers. It was a dispute over simony, after all, that began the Protestant Reformation.

The church had not only the Bible to draw on for its debates, but also Roman sources, such as the great indictment speeches given by Cicero against Ver res, who seems to have been bribed by everyone in Sicily and to have bribed half the officials of the whole republic. Mr. Noonan has great fun with this lurid history, as he does with the trials of Francis Bacon in the 17th century and Warren Hastings in the 18th.

Bacon, who was a philosopher, took enormous bribes while he was Chancellor of England, and Hastings, if one believes Edmund Burke's indictment of him, was on the take from virtually everyone who wanted government favors while he was running India. Mr. Noonan, who is both a philosopher and a lawyer, pursues these histories like a good cross-examiner with a sense of irony.

But he is also a patriot; American bribery occupies most of his book. From the beginning, we have not been pikers. The framers of the Constitution fretted that a President might bribe people to increase his power and specified bribery as a reason for impeachment. But the states got down to it first. In the Yazoo land scheme in 1795, the Georgia Legislature handed out 35 million acres for almost nothing to a bunch of speculators, the legislators - and officials in other states - getting a fair chunk for themselves. Eventually the whole scheme was paid for by the Federal Government, with the approval of the Supreme Court.

Congress had its own flings. When the Union Pacific Railroad was laid down, stock was passed around to many members of the House by one of their own who was in cahoots with the builders to get vast Federal support for the project. It seems that almost every Republican in Washington with any power, including the Vice President, was hooked.

Small wonder that people like Mark Twain and Henry Adams became enormously popular for novels in which bribery ruled the rulers of the nation, or that later, Lincoln Steffens built a great reputation by simply bringing together into one volume what local papers had long reported about graft in the cities. Steffens, of course, eventually resigned his role as moralist; ''we all do it,'' he said. He may have been right. Mr. Noonan gives a wonderful account of a San Francisco newspaper that scourged public officials for being on the take while the paper itself was on a retainer from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Ironically, with all this evidence at hand, it was in this century that universities seem to have lost interest in the subject. Mr. Noonan's account of the decline of thought on the subject in law schools, divinity schools and among social scientists and psychoanalysts makes one wonder whether these savants know much about human conduct - or want to know.

The Watergate prosecutions and Abscam operations give Mr. Noonan an opportunity to raise some not very evident questions about how puritanical we ought to be about bribery, and his analysis of the political fund used for many years by the Gulf Oil Company leads to some inspired speculation about the whole business of political campaigns. But perhaps his richest speculations about morality come in his account of Lockheed's payments to officials in many countries, including Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and a prime minister of Japan. ''I received One Hundred Peanuts'' read the receipt signed by one of the prime minister's contacts. Some peanuts. Altogether Lockheed had paid about $12 million to Tokyo officialdom.

Mr. Noonan is a fine writer and a shrewd moralist. He teaches but he also entertains. His vast learning (the 98 pages of notes reflect whole libraries of sources) is evident but gracefully used. There is scarcely a page in this huge book that does not raise an interesting question or make one redefine one's notions of the morality of public conduct. This treasure can be dipped into many times without being exhausted.


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