Having just turned 70, I’ve been swimming in reveries about folks who affected me a lot. Which got me to thinking about Art Snyder, my debating coach at Los Angeles High School in the late ‘50s. A random thought crossed my mind--I wondered if he were still alive. I wasn’t young anymore, so he certainly wasn’t.
The next morning--it was a week or so ago--I woke up and read that Art Snyder had died the previous day. He died just shy of being 80.
Most people knew Art as the very white Los Angeles councilman in the heavily Latino northeastern district, who was elected sometime in the late ‘60s. So Art became the councilman representing El Sereno, Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, among others. He held the post for nearly two decades.
He was a red-headed Irishman who looked like the Marine he had been. But he was born in Lincoln Heights at the bottom of the Great Depression, so it was natural he learned to speak Spanish.
I knew Art pretty well because I had a terrible crush on his wife, Mary Snyder, my debate teacher at Los Angeles High School when I was 16 or so. It must have been the late ‘50s. Art decided to mentor two of us in his wife’s debating class. So on weekends, he’d drive your’s truly and my old friend Les Evans around to debates.
He was a young attorney who was born to be a politician. He looked like the Rotarian-type Republican he was. While I was beginning to flirt with the emerging counter-culture, he wore suits and ties. But he loved to argue, and argue and debate we did. He was always good natured about our political differences.
Art later divorced Mary to run off with a 19-year-old aide. He was a Republican, but I don’t think he was ever that ideological. I don’t remember him as a big fan of Ayn Rand, the far-right author of “Fountainhead,” for example. I always thought of Rand as not only a political fanatic, but a mental case, a turgid and plainly just a very bad writer.
We didn’t talk that much about our debate topics, which were kind of standard uninteresting high school debating topics. It was all the other stuff--Republicans, Democrats, Goldwater, Communists, Adlai Stevenson, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, Stalin and Huey Long, all of that--upon which we had many animated conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. There was a certain fun larceny in Art’s soul. He was a hustler and it was no accident that after his career as a councilman, he became a powerful lobbyist at city hall. At one point he faced some of misdemeanor money laundering charges, the details of which I forgot. But unlike today’s standard issue Republican, he was never fanatically stupid and venal, which is why he was able to appreciate a good conversation.
I’m sure that he was all too friendly with developers and such, but that’s always true of Republicans--and to a lesser extent, Democrats.
Art didn’t fit his district, at least visually or viscerally. But if a resident called up to complain about a pothole, he’d get it fixed--personally, if he had to. If you were a businessman, and you had a problem with a city agency, he’d fight for you. If you had something really big, it might cost you--but he also paid attention to his regular constituents. Most of his district was Democratic. But that didn’t matter to him--if you were a constituent, he’d do his best to take care of you.
In retrospect, I’d have to say the most memorable thing he ever taught me summed up a lot of things.
“If you need to prove something in a debate,” he said, “just say, ‘as Time Magazine said, ‘blah blah blah and blah blah blah.’”
I tried it and it worked. I won the debates, thanks to a nonexistent quote in in Time Magazine I made up on the spot.
It appalled me a bit only because while I feel my politics intensely, I also wanted to know how things really are. I wanted to know what actually was happening. I want to know the truth of things. As a working journalist, I’ve always been dedicated to that goal. You got to get the facts before you worry about how they fit your ideology. So the idea of winning an argument by spinning a bullshit story kind of unnerved me, even then.
Year later I hooked up with Art after he had retired from being a city councilman. We met in his law office on Sunset Boulevard, not far from Grand Avenue. We went out to eat and talked about the old days. I really liked Art. He was a lot more of a mensch than say Mitt Romney could ever be. And unlike Mitt Romney, and other of today’s Republicans, he never made the terrible mistake of believing his own bullshit.
This article originally appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “Fat Man on the Left,” all available on Amazon’s Kindle Store. A documentary is being made of “Literary L.A.” See “Literary L.A. Movie” on Facebook