NOBODY COULD really believe that Mayor Barry or Council Chairman Dixon would be seriously corrupted by that free plane trip to Paris that each accepted before eventually thinking better of it. That wasn't the point. There is important symbolism involved. Coming as the TWA offer did on the hells of all that stiff-upper-lip talk about District budget cuts and financial austerity, the idea of the city's top official's dashing off last night on a free VIP flight hardly set the proper tone for strapped local government.

There's nothing new or unusual about these special deals for public officials either. In the past, governors of many states -- the Maryland of yore leaps to mind -- have accepted all sorts of lavish gifts and travel arrangements from organizations seeking nothing more than access and influence without having to say so directly. In the narrowest sense, then, Mayor Barry could argue as he did that he saw "nothing illegal, improper or immoral" about accepting the trip. But this, too misses the point. An unhealthy pattern can develop when public officials lose all qualms about accepting gifts.

Left unchecked, the gift-bearing and -taking can easily drift into full-blown bribery. For example, the next freebie might to from a building contractor, to renovate the house of a city official in charge of zoning or permits; or from a large hotel chain, offering top policy-makers all-expense-paid stays in the most luxurious quarters. When does any of this shift from being harmless to being grossly improper?

That is why none of the District officials should have taken off on last night's flight, and why the mayor and council chairman -- of all people -- should have set the example for every tax-supported employee of the city by recognizing immediately that the airline's invitation was an offer they certainly could refuse.