By Robyn Doolittle
In 1995 then president Bill Clinton attracted scorn for having to formally declare at a press conference that his presidency did in fact have some purpose: “I am relevant,” he insisted. “The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president has relevance.”
It seemed embarrassing, or un-presidential, to have to make such a claim. And yet, was it even true? To what extent? A decade later George Will, appearing on the Charlie Rose Show, cast cold water on presidential candidate Barack Obama’s theme of bringing change to government by quoting Joseph Stalin’s rhetorical query as to how much the Soviet Union weighed (the anecdote is drawn from Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, where it has a somewhat different purpose). Will’s point was that the collective weight of the state was so great that real change had become impossible, no matter who was elected. The president was, in effect, irrelevant.
That, in any event, was thought by many to have been the explanation for the election of George W. Bush, someone who no one ever imagined, after the halcyon Clinton years, was ever going to have to actually do anything. He seemed likeable, the kind of guy you might have a beer with. And that was good enough.
Which bring us to Rob Ford. Is the mayor of Toronto, Canada’s largest city, relevant? Does he (or, in the event, she) matter?
Probably not, or at least not very much. As Robyn Doolittle points out, despite his manifest shortcomings and all of the distractions of his crazy mayoralty (thus far), Rob Ford “has, by and large, lived up to his election promises.” Among his accomplishments she includes “quantifiable specifics” like cutting office expenses, contracting out garbage collection, making the TTC an essential service in order to prohibit strikes, and rescinding two unpopular taxes for home buyers and car owners. That’s not bad, and in the case of Ford it was dinner and a show.
A show because while doing all of this Ford also became a global celebrity, “a rock star who gets mobbed everywhere he goes”:
With his reputation in supposed tatters, he can haul out novelty bobble-heads of himself and people will line up for hours to pay for one. In normal times, admitting to smoking crack cocaine, being exposed as a compulsive liar, and getting caught up in two massive police investigations into guns, gangs, and drugs would spell the end of a political career. But these are Rob Ford times. They are not normal.
I would disagree slightly with this. Ford’s case is only representative of a more gradual shift. In normal times Marion Barry would never have been re-elected as mayor of Washington, D.C. after freebasing cocaine with a prostitute, or professional wrestler Jesse Ventura made governor of Minnesota, or Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California. (For the record, Barry thought his drug bust less culpable than Ford’s because he (Barry) had been entrapped.)
In all of these cases we see politicians replaced by “personalities” or performers. I don’t think this is because people honestly think they can do a better job than the usual run of grey public administrators. I think it’s because people have decided that the mayor, or the governor, or the president, doesn’t matter. And if not, why not choose to be entertained?
By the time of the budget battles in the fall of 2011 Doolittle reports that Toronto City Hall was basically running things without the help of the mayor, as “the Ford administration descended into sideshow territory.” Ford himself had become not only irrelevant but embarrassing. But did that mean he was unelectable?
Not at all. Many of the factors that had led to his election in the first place – at a time when much that was unsettling was already known about him – were still in place. There was still the resentment felt by the suburbs against downtown that had been burning since amalgamation, and still the backlash against the public sector unions and other “elites” that was probably the primary force propelling Ford to office in 2010. Sure he was a notorious liar, but what politician wasn’t? By the time the videos started coming he had reached a point where people had stopped believing anything he said anyway. Further denials of wrongdoing were only met with shrugs. Yes he was crude, but wasn’t there something almost endearing about his love of hockey, football, and eating (his wife’s) pussy? These are populist passions and appetites, and they only made him seem even more of a character, a larger-than-life folk hero.
Doolittle’s book is a timely one, with the matter of Ford’s rehabilitation (both politically and for his various addictions) still unresolved. It is a quick read, with a hint of something sad about its muckraking, as though we are witnessing the last gasp of the romance of journalism. For how much longer will reporters continue to be able to play such a role, breaking news of such impact? This time the smoking-gun crack video did not sell to the highest bidder. But the next?
And, finally, who cares? The city will get by just fine with or without the fat man with the gold chain. There has been a slow erosion of the notion that history is created by great men, replaced by the idea that civilization is the process of vast, impersonal forces. In turn, our great men have become our jugglers and fools. Rob Ford and his ilk may be taken as the reductio ad absurdum of this process, the confirmation of Mencken’s prophecy of the triumph of the morons.
Here we are now. Entertain us.
Review first published online June 9, 2014.