BY EDWARD KEENAN
Anyone with any experience of people suffering from addiction problems would have recognized Rob Ford’s emotional confession and apology yesterday. It had the admission of lies and wrong-doing, the claims to personal humiliation and shame, the self-pity that seems to take precedence over the damage inflicted on others, and the promise that this will never, ever, ever, ever happen again. And then, also familiar, is what it did not have: any specific acceptance of consequences, any concrete actions he’s taking to minimize the damage and ensure the future will be different, any recognition that more than an apology is necessary, or even possible. And finally, it was familiar in the desire to file the whole thing into the archives and boldly move forward to write a glorious new chapter. “The past is the past,” he said, “and we must move forward.”
But for Ford, the past is not the past. In fact, as that famous literary drunk William Faulkner said, it’s not even past. The details of the ongoing police investigation have yet to be fully revealed, and have yet to be even partially addressed. He has said nothing of the racist and homophobic remarks he reportedly uttered on video. He has not addressed the campaign of vicious lies he and his brother directed for months at people whose offence was telling the truth. He still holds the position of public trust he was elected to, a trust he has so repeatedly violated. And if he claims that he will not stop drinking entirely—as he has—then not one person familiar with drinking problems would bet on his troubles being behind him.
If the speech was familiar from addiction-recovery case studies, it was equally so for those who have watched Rob Ford’s entire political career unfold. Well before substance abuse was raised as a problem, we had become accustomed to the pattern of outrageous personal misconduct being revealed only to be met with steadfast denial, followed by confession, and a solemn promise to move forward. The examples are too many to list, but they include drunken abuse of strangers, an arrest in Florida, driving infractions, and ethical breaches pointed out by the integrity commissioner and a provincial court judge. The arc of the stories of Ford’s personal missteps have always had an element of denial—even fiction—and hasty claims to redemption. And there is no line between that personal story and his political story. More so than most politicians, Rob Ford’s political career and persona have always been intensely personal.
His claims as a self-proclaimed champion of the little guy, as someone who would deliver better public service, as someone who could watch every penny and make government more efficient were always based on virtually nothing more than his own credibility. He personally returns phone calls. He would personally insist on seeing no money wasted. He would issue a rash and unexplained “guarantee” that things would be as he said they would be. In virtually every policy area—from cutting the size of government, to improving customer service, to rooting out waste, to delivering subways at no cost to taxpayers—his plan to accomplish his goals amounted to little more than him saying, “you can trust me.” He has done nothing but shatter that claim to our trust, repeatedly.
One of the great tragedies is that so many Toronto voters with legitimate political grievances and understandable resentments did trust him, and thought that the very fact of his existence and presence at City Hall would make his wildest claims to improvement a reality. But as most addicts and their families know too well, saying something and meaning it—and even desperately wanting it to be true—is barely a first step to forming a plan. In the absence of a plan, those firm resolutions can in fact be an obstacle, in as much as they provide the momentary illusion of progress. It is true of the dual promise Ford gave of cutting budgets and improving services; it is true of his plan to curb his drinking and forget the considerable damage he has caused to our politics.
And this all mirrors the large untruth behind Rob Ford’s political career: that somehow a massive global metropolis could be run like a family business, where problems are solved mostly by personal attention and a stern word from the boss. You cannot fix the problems of a complex city and build it for the future by having everyone, everywhere, phone in for a personal audience with the mayor. You cannot change the culture of a bureaucracy by having the son who inherited the place shout a lot or deliver a pep talk. And unlike a family business, a city doesn’t have to indulge the boss’s glaring personal failures and abuses of trust. Because unlike a family business, the city was not created to serve or better the people who govern it. We do not need the boss’s cooperation to move on. His personal and political credibility are in tatters. Toronto is bigger than the flawed man we elected in 2010, and we have our own recovery to get on with.
PHOTO: VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR