Why Jim Flaherty's loss for words was important

The finance minister on his friend, Rob Ford

Nathan Denette/CP

“At the end of the day, he has to make his own decision about what he ought to do.” — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s future

Jim Flaherty is rarely overcome with emotion. He may get snippy, or even curmudgeonly, when challenged by the opposition in the House of Commons. For years, he responded to furious indignation from the other side with remarkable poise. Flaherty’s looking less steady of late, as he fights off nagging health issues. But throughout, he’s rarely lost his cool.

Then, all of a sudden, at a press conference in Toronto, the finance minister was at a loss for words. Yesterday, Flaherty was speaking before a pre-budget consultation when a reporter asked him about the plight of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Flaherty is a family friend to the Fords, and was close with the mayor’s father. The question hit close to home. “Do you think it’s time for Mayor Rob Ford to take some time away from his duties at city hall to get well, and deal with some of his addiction problems?”

Flaherty had stepped away from the podium to better hear the question. He ambled back, eyes down. “I am close with the family,” he said, voice wavering. “I am…” and then came a silence. Flaherty fidgeted, eyes still down, unable to speak. “He’ll have to, uh… the mayor will have… at the end of the day, he has to make his own decision about what he ought to do.” Big breath. “Certainly, his family is helping him and wishing him well. That’s all I can say,” he finished. Flaherty was close to tears.

Forget politics, just for a second. Ford’s spectacle has a lot of people talking about politicians as human beings. The mayor deserves not just help, but our sympathy, some say. There’s no place for ridicule that might reinforce the stigma attached to addiction. Ford’s stubborn determination to hold on renders that conversation moot, but at least it reminds everyone that he’s a human being.

Flaherty, standing alone at that podium, gave voice to that humanity. He must have known the question would come. He must have had an answer at the ready. His friendship with the Fords is no secret. Still, he could barely find the words. We expect stoicism from people in power, not tears and tied tongues. Flaherty’s supposed to be able to answer any question. He’s supposed to be measured, or angered, or dismissive, as required. But his friend is going through something no one knows how to handle, and it was all he could do to struggle through a sentence or two.

When politicians show emotion, they’re often subject to ridicule. Yesterday, to the internet’s credit, there was none of that. There was just a man who cares for his friend and wishes him well, otherwise helpless—and dealing with it in public, on the job. Ford and his family are hanging on with everything they’ve got, but Rob must have seen his friend Jim struggle in the spotlight. For all his refusals to step down or seek help, the mayor must have paused—even for a moment—to consider his alternatives. Or so you’d hope.


What’s above the fold

The Globe and Mail Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appears agitated and incensed in a new video.
National Post Ford’s latest video marks a media race to the bottom.
Toronto Star Lawyers are pushing for the release of the infamous “crack tape.”
Ottawa Citizen Ontario opposes the federal government’s Canada Job Grant.
CBC News Submissions will be made today to push for the crack tape’s release.
CTV News Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest of the year, hit the Philippines.
National Newswatch Parliamentarians’ new expense disclosure hides a lot of details.

What you might have missed

THE NATIONAL BlackBerry. As the struggling smartphone giant attempts to raise $1 billion in financing, a pair of Canadian powerhouses—Brookfield Asset Management Inc. and Power Financial Corp.—are providing 80 per cent of the required funding. The investors have faith in new executive John Chen, who has a track record for turning around struggling businesses.
THE GLOBAL Iraq. Thirty people were killed in several attacks across Iraq yesterday, including 19 in a single incident that saw two suicide bombers drive cars into a military base in Tarmiyah. The spate of attacks struck a market in Mosul, an army post in Ana, and a tent serving food to pilgrims. Sixty-one people were injured, including 41 at the Tarmiyah base.
THE QUIRKY Belgium. Albert II, the former Belgian king who stepped down last summer, says his $1.3 million annual allowance is not enough—and he’d like the navy to maintain his yacht, too. Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo says no changes to Albert’s remuneration were forthcoming, even though the ex-king had taken his complaints directly to the government.