The Only Average Guy

By John Filion

The recent death of Rob Ford draws a sad curtain on one of the most remarkable political careers in Canadian history.

For much of that circus-like career John Filion had a ringside seat, being a member of Toronto’s City Council while Rob (who was mayor of Toronto from 2010 to 2014) was the only show in town.

By now most of us are familiar with the story of how the larger-than-life rambunctious Ford came to power as the voice of “Ford Nation” and then fell from grace due to well-documented problems with substance abuse that culminated in the surfacing of a video of him smoking crack cocaine.

Filion’s excellent book gives an up-close look at all of this, though it never penetrates the bunker of the tightly-knit Ford family (the only family member who agreed to be interviewed was fellow councillor Doug Ford). It’s a story that has all the fascination of a train wreck, with the added spice of celebrity, political power, and media sensation. And just as we couldn’t help watching when it was happening, it’s hard to turn our eyes away when reading about it again.

The basic premise, however, is strained. Rob Ford was exceptional only because of the position he held. He was, as Jimmy Kimmel tried to explain to him, “not the average politician.” Filion goes further, calling him “a mayor like none before him – perhaps anywhere, at any time, in any major city.”

That said, he was a very average addict: someone with low self-esteem (the result of being the baby of a family dominated by an alpha-male father) who had enough money to indulge in various unhealthy appetites. This behaviour escalated through all the usual stages until he finally imploded. There was nothing complicated about him as a person. We’ve all known people like this.

The more interesting question has to do with the nature of the toxic political environment that did so much to enable him. As one of his critics, Chris Caple, puts it here, “a Rob Ford out there working in a car wash” wouldn’t be surprising. But his political success was “mind-blowing.”

Whatever his good qualities, Rob Ford had no business being mayor of Canada’s biggest city. His success says a lot about democracy in North America in the twenty-first century, about polarization, spectacle, and the marketing of a political brand.

There’s a chapter here on Ford Nation and “the partisan brain” that stands at the real heart of the matter, but Filion could have said more about this, with insight coming from the perspective of a working politician. As Caple notes, surveying the wreckage, “There are countless lessons to be learned here.” The Rob Ford saga was endlessly entertaining; a book about it needs to be more instructive.

Review first published online June 2, 2016. After Trump and the election of Rob Ford’s brother Doug as premier of Ontario I went back to take another look at this book. You can read that review here. For an earlier take on the Ford story, see my review of Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town.

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