Remembering LA's 'Artful Dodger'
A friend of former LA Councilman Art Snyder reminisces about the ex-Marine-turned-lawyer who loved a good fight and cared for constituents
By Lionel Rolfe 11/15/2012
Having just turned 70, I’ve been swimming in reveries about folks who’ve affected me a lot, which got me to thinking about Art Snyder, my debating coach at Los Angeles High School in the late 1950s.
About a week ago, a random thought crossed my mind — was he still alive? I wasn’t young anymore, so he certainly wasn’t either.
The next morning I woke up and read in the paper that Art Snyder had died the previous day, just shy of 80.
Most people knew Art as the very white Los Angeles councilman in the city’s heavily Latino northeastern District 14, elected in 1967. Art became the councilman representing El Sereno, Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, among other communities, a post he held for nearly two decades.
He was a red-headed Irishman who looked like the Marine he had been. Born in Boyle Heights in 1932, during the Great Depression, it was natural that he learned how to speak Spanish.
I knew Art pretty well, because I had a terrible crush on his wife, Mary Snyder, my debate teacher at LA High when I was 16 or so in the late ’50s. Art decided to mentor two students in his wife’s debating class. So on weekends, he’d drive yours truly and my old friend, Les Evans, around to the debates.
Art was a young attorney who was born to be a politician. He looked like the Rotarian-type of Republican he really 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. And 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.
We didn’t talk that much about our debate topics, which were kind of standard, uninteresting high school debating subjects. It was all the other stuff — Republicans, Democrats, Goldwater, Communists, Adlai Stevenson, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Huey Long and all of that — about which we had many animated conversations.
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 misdemeanor money laundering charges, the details of which I forgot. But unlike today’s standard-issue Republican, he was never fanatically stupid or venal, which is why he was able to appreciate a good conversation.
I’m sure 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 the people in his district were Democrats. 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 debate, thanks to a nonexistent quote from Time Magazine that I’d 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 still want to know the truth of things. As a working journalist, I’ve always been dedicated to that goal. You’ve got to get the facts before figuring out how they fit with your ideology. So the idea of winning an argument by spinning a bullshit story kind of unnerved me, even then.
Years later, I hooked up with Art after he had retired from City Council. We met in his law office on Sunset Boulevard, not far from Grand Avenue, in downtown LA. 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 Romney and others of today’s Republicans, he never made the terrible mistake of believing his own bullshit.
Please read a related story on page 8.
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.