Even though he was half dead from the self-imposed starvation of a 51-day fast, it was clear to the hordes of reporters and camera crews who crowded into the seedy headquarters of the Community for Creative Non-Violence one gray Sunday afternoon in 1984 that Mitch Snyder was savoring his biggest -- and most public -- victory.
Minutes earlier, two days before the presidential election and hours before a piece on Snyder aired on "60 Minutes," President Reagan had bowed to Snyder's intransigence and had agreed to allocate $5 million to renovate CCNV's squalid shelter at Second and D streets NW. For days, reporters from around the world had focused on Snyder's high-stakes battle with the president of the United States. The big question was, What would happen if Mitch died before the election?
As he was carried down the stairs by his weeping supporters, looking Christlike with his gaunt frame, dark beard and hands folded in front of him, he smiled weakly.
"Mitch, was it worth it?" one reporter asked Snyder. "Of course," he whispered disdainfully, weakly gesturing at the scene as though the answer was self-evident.
It was that unshakable sense of certainty that made Mitch Snyder so infuriating and so interesting to cover. This time he was absolutely convinced that he would win -- that he would beat the president of the United States even though others regarded him as a self-aggrandizing martyr who would die trying.
In 1984 and 1985, I covered Snyder and CCNV and the then-emerging issue of homelessness in Washington. At the time, the sight of people living on the streets of the nation's capital was a new phenomenon capable of arousing passion and outrage. CCNV was at the center of the struggle, and Mitch Snyder -- who because of the hunger strike would be the subject of a made-for-TV movie and articles in magazines -- was the central intellectual and moral force, the extraordinarily articulate leader of a new social movement.
Although Snyder always protested that CCNV, an organization he joined in the mid-1970s, had no leader -- only members who were equal -- everyone knew better. Mitch was the boss and Carol Fennelly, his longtime companion and a shrewd strategist who humanized him, was his deputy.
Much as Snyder cultivated attention from the press and knew how central it was to his success as an activist, he had a complicated and often uneasy relationship with reporters. He knew he needed us, but he didn't particularly like us: In Snyder's view it seemed as though we were all means to his end. He shamelessly played us off against each other, strategically doling out tidbits to those who were in favor at the moment.
He seemed to have a harder time with female reporters. Some of his CCNV compatriots said he had the same problem with women during the marathon house meetings that resembled encounter groups. "When a woman challenges him, like about why he's taking more food than the rest of us or why he doesn't have to do the scut work like the dumpster runs, he goes nuts," one young female CCNV resident said.
There were other contradictions: He tried to cultivate the lean, ascetic look of an early Christian martyr but battled a weight problem and secretly hoarded candy in his room when he wasn't fasting. He was as equally at home with strung-out shelter residents who were hallucinating as with the wives of cabinet officers, such as Susan Baker, who took up his cause and visited him during his hunger strike.
Snyder rarely missed an opportunity to needle us about how comfortable our lives were. One sultry fall evening as I was leaving the shelter after an emotionally exhausting day of interviews, one of which was interrupted when a rat ran across my shoe, Mitch walked me to the door. I couldn't wait to get out of there and take a shower.
"Just remember when you sit down to write your story, the people here can't go home to a nice house," he said, echoing something I'd heard he'd said to a Reagan administration official a few days earlier. I felt intensely guilty, and even though I knew Snyder was manipulating me, I also knew he was right. Most of all, I was awed by his relentless dedication and the fact that he had stayed to fight an exhausting, dispiriting battle when he could have been equally successful doing other, easier things.
He rarely complimented those whose stories he liked -- he was smart enough to know that we thought that might mean we were not being sufficiently even-handed. Instead he let it be known through Fennelly or other trusted associates that he thought a story was insightful.
But Mitch was not nearly so reticent when he was displeased, which seemed to occur particularly when he felt that he or homelessness or both had been eclipsed by other stories. Several times I answered my phone only to find Mitch, who didn't identify himself, screaming that I had "totally missed the point" and was obviously too "unsophisticated to see through the lies of the stupid and mean-spirited Reagan administration."
Despite his legendary obstinacy, Snyder had great personal charm, and even though he was reluctant to talk about himself, he sometimes did, if prodded.
"I bring out a lot of good in people, but I ain't Mother Teresa," he told me in an unguarded moment, as he lay on his bed midway through the 1984 hunger strike. "I'm a very selfish, very controlling, pigheaded person with a fanatical belief in the supremacy of goodness."
Mitch embodied all of those qualities. What made him so powerful and so effective is that he especially embodied the last one.