The video exists! The blessed video, so longed-for that otherwise self-respecting citizens once whipped up $200,000 to buy it off a drug dealer, is real. The Police Chief told us so. Surely this—surely this!—will prove to everybody the self-evident truth of Rob Ford.
The video is sought after because we’re told it’s the one artifact that can dispatch Ford, a peculiar beast who’s proven indestructible by normal means. What do you do with the man who is, by any real standard, terrible at his job, yet is immune to assault from friend and foe, impervious to politicians and judges and editors and chiefs of police and, perhaps most miraculously, himself? How does one handle a man who’s spent three years self-destructing without actually going anywhere? Every three months, Ford erupts in a catastrophic self-immolation, but when the smoke clears, there he is sitting in the ashes, blinking like the Mother of Dragons, pink, pristine, and ready to go again. What do you do?
People started looking for a silver bullet.
The tape became a cause célèbre because it was proof: not so much that the mayor says awful things or occasionally goes out and gets wasted, or that he consorts with an unpleasant bunch, because we knew that. Rather, the tape was meant to settle the question of who’s been lying this whole time: the journalists who dug up stories about private indiscretion and public misbehaviour, or the mayor who claimed that it was just a plot to get him, hatched by a pack of latte-swilling jackals (you get soy on your muzzle, but a dog needs his pick-me-up).
And so the video became a great MacGuffin, significant not for its contents, but for its mere existence. Finding it became a litmus test of just whose reality we’ve been living in this whole time. And the great unstated hope was that, once it was made public, the veil would be dropped: Ford’s supporters would finally see that the man has been lying to them all along—not just about this, but about everything.
There’s been much talk, these last two days, about Ford’s fitness for office. The papers seem to have decided he has to go. But where is that line actually drawn? Was it the fact that he became central to a police investigation? Was it the pictures of him holing himself up in an Esso washroom while Sandro Lisi left a mysterious package in his car? The association with a young man who was murdered? The charges of extortion being levelled at a friend who tried to retrieve a video of Ford that Ford all but claimed didn’t exist? Or is it the simple fact that Ford appears to have been lying through his teeth about this tape?
It’s hard to draw the line there, of course, since Ford has had a special relationship with the truth for many years. He lied to the public, simply and brazenly, on the campaign trail. He lied about his arrest record in Florida until he was found out, just like he lied about his infamous earlier drunken escapade at a Leafs game. One of his competitors was drummed out of the race for lying to the press about personal indiscretions. But not Ford: he applied for, and received, the ultimate exemption—an overwhelming victory at the ballot box.
So what happens when a man who is unfit for office gets elected by a population who is fully apprised of his failings? Something has to give. On one hand, he became fit for office simply because voters said he did. But in so doing, voters also lowered their expectations to the point where any and all standards became impossible to enforce. In our rush to elect a man who resonated with the spirit of 2010, we created a mayoralty in which mistruth and misbehaviour were simply part of the ground rules. Now we’re arguing about exactly how big a police investigation is required to justify a resignation.
Rob Ford was rewarded for his behaviour, and he kept on doing it. It’s not that he speaks incorrectly, or in exaggerations, or in political bafflegab. It’s that Ford and his elder brother, Doug, continually make blunt-force statements of mistruth—whether it’s the fiction that he’s saved the city a billion dollars, true only if you creatively redefine either “saved” or “a billion dollars,” or his repeated insistence that an LRT in Scarborough will dig up roads. Journalists and on-lookers have been reduced to standing at the sidelines, stammering “but… but!,” issuing pleading fact-checking articles, and writing paragraphs like these.
This is why the notion that Ford’s personal troubles are somehow a “sideshow” or a “distraction” from his real work at City Hall is bunk. This is government by sideshow. The mayor is a position with little formal command, but a huge imperative to lead through persuasion. Personality is power. The same troubles that have led him from one scandal to another have crippled him at City Hall. Ford lost the power to achieve anything substantive two years ago. Let’s not pretend he has an agenda that this is distracting him from. (His only apparent victory of 2013, the Scarborough subway extension, was dropped into his lap by Karen Stintz, who seems to have miscalculated who’d get the credit for it.)
Fabulism plagued Ford’s mayoralty from day one, long before it was revealed that he smokes whatever it is he smokes, or lives the tragic life he seems to live, schlepping from plaza parking lot to gas station, getting drunk in the park at night, swapping mysterious packages with his friend, Sandro Lisi, now accused of extortion in addition to trafficking. Fabulism was his pitch in 2010, and fabulism was the trait he brought to his office, with the voters’ blessing.
Yet Ford remains popular, at least in some pockets, precisely because people think he’s a straight shooter. Like many in the media, I have spent years twisting myself into contortions of subjectivity to validate this somehow. Could it be that people are substituting consistency for honesty? Does the fact that he probably believes in the things he says make him genuine? Is he honest simply because the media says he’s dishonest, and the media lies? Is lying when cornered an honest thing to do? Is insistently saying that you’ve achieved something more honest than actually achieving it?
This was why the tape mattered, and why its acknowledgement wasn’t just a newsworthy moment, but an emotional one as well: it was supposed to break the city out of this house of mirrors, and somehow drag Ford and his crew out of their alternate reality and into ours.
Of course it won’t. Already, we can see the Fords’ new line of defence forming: we don’t know what he was smoking, and besides, this is all a political attack by the chief of police, who, like his former allies, the media, the judiciary, the unions, everyone who lives downtown, Mary Walsh, the Toronto Star, and that mother and child he gave the finger to from his minivan in 2011 have all been out to get him.
That is Rob Ford’s reality, and no tape will change it. He deals with the public in bad faith. We keep talking about Rob Ford as if the events of the last two days have somehow rendered him unfit for office. He was always unfit for office. We simply lowered the office to let him in.