TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS: WHAT TORONTO’S ROB FORD FIASCO IS ABOUT AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM IT
For most of its history Toronto was a quiet and law-abiding place, up until a couple of decades ago bearing the nick-name, Toronto the Good, a name which actually had a double meaning, the second one being dull. And the city was rather dull, but it was also safe and decent, a place of quiet neighborhoods and corner green-grocers. In the 1960s, street cleaners carried the motto, Keep Toronto Clean and Tidy. Its mayors ranged from dull and honest to earnest and green. Toronto has grown greatly since that time and has gone from having a largely British-Scottish population to a cosmopolitan one with a great diversity of national origins, but it remains a relatively peaceful and quiet place which rarely intrudes on the world’s headlines.
So how did it end up making news around the world with a mayor whose behavior is insulting, laughable, embarrassing, and, in a number of cases, illegal? I think the answer is to be found in the behavior of his predecessor, David Miller, a man fixated by all things superficial and yuppie-fluffy.
Miller ignored real problems in the city for two terms while he went for Don Quixote charges like his long campaign to kill the city’s island airport, an attractive and useful facility on the waterfront, but one to which some waterfront condo owners objected. Basic urban housekeeping suffered badly, from pot holes in the streets and a crumbling downtown expressway to a growing cancerous and destructive bureaucracy in everything the city does (e.g., if you repair parts of your home near a tree on your property, you will be charged two thousand dollars or better to protect the tree with a temporary wooden structure), all while raising taxes annually by substantial amounts and never tiring of saying how Toronto’s people valued services and didn’t mind paying for them. Toronto is traditionally a city of homes (apartment buildings only starting to appear in numbers in the late 1960s), and many of its homes are extremely modest row- or semi-detached houses from a century or more ago belonging to people of modest means. Miller ignored them, and Ford came along to an unhappy electorate and promised, with a burst of pseudo-populism, to do things differently. Well, they had no idea how differently he meant.
Rob Ford is simply “Montezuma’s revenge” for two terms of David Miller. As it turned out, Ford not only had a closet bulging with skeletons, he truly did not understand much about cities. Several newspaper reports tried warning voters about Ford’s past: his 1999 arrest for drunk driving in Florida or his being led away by police in handcuffs after a 911 call from his wife five years ago or his charge of assault at a hockey game when he was younger. But the facts no more registered with many voters than early revelations in the United States about George Bush’s scandalous life before politics, and besides the opposition in the mayoral election tried rallying around a man whom many regarded as an abject failure in provincial politics. Ford’s claim to merit, parroted almost daily by his brother Doug, has been saving taxpayers money, but that claim has proved as phony as so much else about Ford, advocating, as he does, a money-wasting (but vote-getting) subway to a lower-density former suburb instead of a sensible LRT, something that will cost more than a billion unnecessary dollars.
Rob Ford’s public behavior reminds me somewhat of the literary character, Father Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a man who would do the most absurd and embarrassing things and then act as though nothing of the kind ever happened. It is a trait which in Rob Ford superficially resembles lying but surely reveals something deeper, for the original acts themselves are often tasteless and there are many witnesses to them, yet there appears to be absolutely no sense of shame felt.
We learn now there is no straightforward way to remove a mayor in Toronto, no mechanism such as recall ever having been anticipated as being needed in Toronto the Good. Rob Ford has appeared drunk in public several times with slobber or drink or perspiration wetting his shirt front. He has made rude suggestions to women. He gave the finger to an old lady who called him out about his texting while driving. He tried to pass the open door of a streetcar and when the driver rebuked him, Ford reported the driver for leaving his seat to the head of Toronto transit. Ford was photographed reading papers while at the wheel on a busy highway. He always rejected suggestions that he have a full-time driver. He disappeared from city hall for long periods of time day after day with no explanations. He used city staff on some of his personal charitable work. He used city letter head to solicit funds for his football charity. He sometimes used a friend, a man twice convicted of violent acts and since arrested for drug dealing, as a driver, and he wrote letters of recommendation for this character, again on city letterhead.
The cracks really started to show when a mysterious man approached reporters of the city’s largest newspaper and tried selling a video from a cellphone. The video appeared to show the mayor smoking a crack pipe in the company of some shady men, one of whom was later murdered. It is also reported to have Ford using nasty language towards some groups. The newspaper did not buy the video, and the mayor called the newspaper’s careful (and as it proved, accurate) reportage of events “ridiculous,” one of his favorite glibly-mumbled words, and many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though a still from the video was published of the mayor with the shady characters, but the mayor insisted he posed for hundreds of pictures with people he didn’t know. The mayor upped the ante on the video by telling reporters he could not comment on something that does not exist (use of that word causing many to fear that he may have obtained or destroyed it). The city’s other major newspaper, not to be outdone, ran a well-researched story on the mayor’s confidant, political ally and brother, Doug Ford and his other brother, Randy. It told of their days in the 1980s working as dealers selling hashish, and included the tale of a man who was kidnapped, driven off, and held in isolation for not paying a drug bill. This, as usual, was met with “ridiculous” and “lies.” Suddenly, some unknown person gave another video of the mayor in unknown circumstances to a newspaper. It shows him in a drunken rant, flailing his arms, shouting obscenities, and threatening to kill some unknown person.
Since that time we learn the police conducted an extensive surveillance on the mayor owing to his association with known criminal types. They also conducted a large drug raid in the neighborhood where Ford seems to have been photographed in the first video, a place said to be a known crack house. Bit by bit, the press has managed to get the court to release some of the records relating to these events as being in the public interest, and it has just been one bombshell after another. Night pictures of the mayor at a gas station going to the washroom while his questionable friend uses an open passenger-side door to place a package in the mayor’s parked car, the fact that the “non-existent” video was discovered by police in the raid and that his friend has been charged with extortion, confirmation of the general nature of that video, phone records showing the mayor calling his shady friend about 250 times, the fact that there is still another video of some kind yet unknown, long texts of police interrogations of people who worked in the mayor’s office containing testimony about drunkenness, drugs, possible prostitutes, and more.
One suspects that the extortion charge relates to secret efforts to obtain the video with the great flurry of phone calls, all during public denials of the video’s existence. One can imagine the police offering a plea bargain to the mayor’s friend in return for testimony against the mayor, but that is only speculation.
Suggestions have been made over and over by allies and opponents that Ford take a leave of absence to seek treatment or quit, but they are all stubbornly ignored and the mayor says he enjoys his job (an assertion which raises the question of which aspects of the job he means). One can almost picture a children’s book about Robby the Runaway Bulldozer continuing to smash things with a smile on his chubby, perspiring face despite efforts by every worker on the construction site to jump aboard and apply the brakes.
But the city’s councillors are so ashamed of his latest behavior, they’ve begun stripping him of authorities by overwhelming majority votes, the intention being to leave him as mayor in name only so that he either quits in frustration or lives out the remaining ten months of his term without smashing anything more. The determination for this approach came after Robby suddenly appeared at city hall before television cameras and uttered some utterly filthy words, the kind you generally only hear at a drunken table of puking college freshmen.
A short time later Ford reappeared to apologize, and I don’t know what number of his “sincere, sincere apologies” this one was simply because everyone in the city has lost count. This one proved less an apology than another bizarre stunt when he dragged his wife with him before the cameras, a woman who is virtually unknown, having avoided public light much as the late Nikita Khrushchev’s wife used to do. Robby didn’t literally drag her of course, but if you watch the video of his bizarre statement, you will see what I mean: Mrs. Ford does not stand by his side, turned to look up at him speaking the way American politicians well-trained prop-wives are so often seen doing during campaigns, hanging on every banality uttered as though listening at the feet of Jesus. No, Mrs. Ford takes several distinct steps away from him, and she stands, face towards the audience, looking what I can only call grim. But she doesn’t just stand there looking grim, she rolls her eyes up once and turns them down several times, rubs her ring finger nervously, and gives out several almost-audible deep breathes in the fashion most people might use to silently express exasperation or fear.
It was a performance by the pair of them such as I have never seen in politics. So why did he insist on exposing this private woman? Well, it was completely in keeping with his own apology for having said words earlier on camera along the lines of “I never said to [a woman] I want to eat her pussy because I have plenty to eat at home.” First he told us how shattered he was over the last six months since the death of his father, and then how upset he was that court-released police transcripts told of a former associate of his who thought the mayor had a sex worker with him on one occasion.
The transcript includes a lot of other stuff by other former associates, including drunk-diving, taking OxyContin and doing lines of cocaine, sending employees out to buy him flasks of vodka which he drank when driving, but it was the one about the supposed sex-worker that seems to have sent Robby into a ballistic trajectory. No, she wasn’t a sex-worker, said Robby, but a friend, and he was very upset over that description. By a logic which eludes me, this all got blurred into a supposed attack on him as a husband and father. Presumably, that logic was the key to his bringing his wife with him to exhale and look down and rub her finger several feet away as he explained his reasons for using grotesque obscenity on camera shortly earlier.
He left the podium after this statement and proceeded down the hall with his wife in tow, much resembling Robby the Bulldozer pushing aside newsmen gasping and gawking, one radio commentator saying he’d never seen anything like it.
There was one thing clearly explained by this performance, and that was that Ford was not just the drunken buffoon and regular liar so many now took him for but a man with genuine and serious problems, seemingly a mental disorder of some kind. So which came first, in chicken-and-egg fashion, the mental problems as a result of excessive drink and drugs or the drink and drugs being used as an effort at self-medication for a mental problem? The answer is, of course, we don’t know, and I doubt Rob Ford does either, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: he is a totally unfit person for any office.
The delightful coda to all this was a series of announcements by various organizations who let Ford know they did not want to be associated with him. The Toronto Argonauts football team, whose jersey he had worn earlier to root for them in a playoff game, let it be known he could not attend the game in his official capacity. Best of all was the organizers of the city’s Santa Claus Parade asking the mayor not to attend in his traditional capacity, walking in the parade and handing out lollipops.
Rob Ford’s political career is all but over, but it will take some time before the door to city hall can be closed on his back. His lawyer is making sounds about an injunction to stop city council from meeting to vote on more stripping of authorities, and Ford has threatened to sue everyone, including the people who were quoted in court-released documents being interrogated by police (who generally hold people responsible for the truthfulness of statements). While the likelihood of success in such acts seems extremely low, Ford is a rich man (his late father having built a company which has kept the Ford brothers going in comfortable style), as well as a stubborn one and an angry one.
I do have a couple of fears. One is that his true believers, and he still has some, will promote a stab-in-the-back myth. That will be divisive and poisonous in a city politics which has not traditionally been so, indeed a city politics which does not even have political parties, but that is precisely what happens when any politician chooses to abuse truth and transparency and ignore responsibility. My other fear is that the next government of the city will not learn from the Robby the Runaway Bulldozer experience and, feeling they are leaving a brief, bad nightmare behind, go ahead in the Mayor Miller fashion of focusing on the superficial and grandiose. That way likely lies more madness.