Rob Ford, of course, denies everything. Up he got on Tuesday, for his 39 seconds of rebuttal.
“Number one, it’s an outright lie,” he stammered to a City Hall press gallery, in response to a Toronto Star report that claimed he’d been asked to leave a function and, what’s more, had a drinking problem. “It’s the Toronto Star going after me again, and again, and again,” he said. “They’re relentless, that’s fine. I’ll go head to head with the Toronto Star any time. Let’s just wait, just let’s wait, let’s just wait ’til the election is, and then we’ll see what happens. It’s just lies after lies and lies. And I’ve called you pathological liars, and you are, so why don’t you take me to court? Let the courts decide. You guys are liars!”
At this point, his press secretary got him off the podium. Rob Ford subsequently went to ground, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Where do we go from here? It was the kind of performance that could have ended the career of a lesser man, but not Rob Ford. By now, citizens of Toronto have evolved a natural immunity to their mayor saying or doing something completely humiliating, followed immediately by the mayor insisting that it was everybody’s fault except his own. A visitor without such immunity might be shocked into some kind of uncomfortable awareness, but we’ve been desensitized into safety. It’s a good thing. It keeps the invaders out.
Ford is faced by some pretty damning evidence. One of his most reliable allies, Councillor Paul Ainslie—a genial scout leader from Scarborough with a true-blue voting record—felt compelled to ask that the mayor leave a military ball Ainslie had co-organized after at least eight people complained about his behaviour. This is not an anonymous source making an allegation; this is something that an elected and allied member of council says he did, before documenting it by e-mail.
The broader allegations of a drinking problem are harder to prove. The Star here relies on anonymous members of the mayor’s staff, present and past, which are credible given the newspaper’s track record of accurate (if hostile) coverage, but less saleable in the court of public opinion. Still, Ford’s erratic behaviour is on the record, and calls out for explanation.
In the last week alone he was reported to have shown up “disheveled” at a Shabbat gathering of Orthodox Jews, and pounded out a pro-casino speech that, by the Toronto Sun’s account, left other politicians cringing in embarrassment. Then he risked causing a mistrial in a first-degree murder case by spontaneously calling a legal affairs talk-show and—in a clarion call for personal responsibility for the accused—insisting that “you can’t defend that.” The lawyers on the show were left scrambling to explain the law to him.
In most places, the playbook for public officials caught in the mess is to come clean, stop the bleeding, issue a carefully worded apology, and then declare the matter closed. Canadians are a forgiving bunch. This is John A. Macdonald’s country, after all. Gordon Campbell had a DUI mugshot taken while he was premier of BC. Ralph Klein, who was the mayor of Calgary before becoming Alberta’s premier, drunkenly yelled at the homeless at a shelter; he thereafter admitted to problem drinking and swore he’d curtail it. Even here in Toronto, councillor Ana Bailao, after a false start, issued a tearful apology for her own DUI, pleading guilty and paying a fine. (At the time, Ford issued a statement. “Councillor Ana Bailao did something wrong and she’s taken full responsibility for her actions.”)
What did Rob Ford do this time? Well, he called everyone a liar. As a solution to his problem, it has a certain elegance. There aren’t a lot of moving parts to it: No fuss, no muddle, no explication and, as a bonus, perfect congruence with all the other times he’s lashed out at accusers.
This week, he gave only two refutations to the evidence presented against him. The first was his “I know you are but what am I?” legal strategy: Instead of suing the well-prepared Star for libel, he called them liars and demanded they sue him instead. But the second refutation was more telling: “Let’s just wait, just let’s wait, let’s just wait ’til the election is, and then we’ll see what happens.”
This is Rob Ford’s truth. The facts will be decided not by reality, but by the people, on election day. The visitor from abroad might think that a pile of damning evidence might sway the vote against Rob Ford, but that is to misunderstand Toronto. In Toronto, Rob Ford’s voters will absolve him of the pile of evidence.
It’s a schoolyard view of the world, in which truth flows from popularity and power. He’s used it to run his administration like a radio phone-in show, talking to just one crowd with a mix of pandering and fabulism. It’s also the outlook that’s landed him in a ditch, with his budget chief quit in disgust, his transit chief rebelled, his inner circle falling away, his influence gone.
And it’s a view of the world that many of us have enabled. Ford was resoundingly elected despite a widely reported history of both intoxication and denial. It had a legitimizing effect: Initially, even his foes in politics and the press deferred to the people’s decision that this was acceptable. For Ford, tragically enough, it was a mandate to keep doing what he was doing.
He seems resolved to keep doing it. The only way forward for Rob Ford is straight to the election. Only the popular vote can right his wrongs, and only the people can prove beyond a doubt that anyone who doubted him was simply telling lies.