Ivor Tossell is the author of The Gift of Ford: Rob Ford: How Toronto’s Unlikeliest Man Became its Most Notorious Mayor.
Only Rob Ford. Only Rob Ford could go to rehab and come back so resolutely, irrepressibly, catastrophically Rob Ford.
For a few breathtaking minutes upon his return, it seemed like things might be different. His voice cracked. He paused meaningfully. For a moment, it really seemed like he was going to show us a side of Rob Ford we hadn’t seen before.
And then he launched into a speech that, unfortunately for everyone, was identical in tone and substance to the one he gave the last time around, after he confessed to smoking crack last November.
Rob Ford in November: “I know I embarrassed everyone in this city and I will be forever sorry. There is only one person to blame for this and that is myself.”
Rob Ford this week: “I am ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. I was wrong, and I have no one to blame but myself.”
Rob Ford in November: “In 2010, I made a commitment to Toronto voters. I have delivered on that commitment and I will continue to deliver on the commitment of saving taxpayers money.”
Rob Ford this week: “When I was elected in 2010, I promised to stop the gravy train. We’ve moved away from the tax and spend ways of the past, and changed the culture of city hall…”
Rob Ford in November: “Folks, I have nothing left to hide… I want to be clear, I want to be crystal clear to every single person, these mistakes will never, ever, ever happen again.”
Rob Ford, this week: “Good afternoon, everyone…”
It takes a certain skill to spend 60 days in rehab and come out sounding so unchanged. But then, consistency has always been Mr. Ford’s greatest strength: People keep confusing it for honesty.
Once again, Mr. Ford went to enormous pains to take full responsibility for all of his actions, so long as it didn’t mean accepting anything resembling a consequence. He insisted once again that he’ll “never be able to change the mistakes that I have made in the past” – if only he could turn back time, like Cher astride a battleship. I don’t think he fooled anyone. If Rob Ford really did get his hands on a time machine, his record on bigotry wouldn’t change, but pictures of him at mid-70’s Super Bowls would start showing up in old issues of Sports Illustrated.
Ever since the press conference, he’s been running around the city refusing to address the flea circus of questions that dance around him. Instead, he’s reacted the same way as ever: He digs a trench around whichever story he’s currently hewing to, and refuses to be dragged from it. When circumstances, or occasionally cellphone video taken by gang members, force a change in dogma, he simply digs a new trench and settles in there. The new trench looks like this: Everything he said and did can be attributed to his “disease,” as such, even the string of ethnic slurs so long and awful that when the Toronto Star tried printing a dashed-out version, it came out looking like morse code. Rob Ford has swapped one kind of denial for another.
At the time of Mr. Ford’s departure, there was widespread apprehension that rehab would form the platform for a redemption narrative, and a shield he could use to explain away the sins of his old self. That’s not what’s transpired. Instead, rehab raised the stakes: Torontonians might have been willing to give Rob Ford a hearing after his break, but when they heard the same contradictory dodges and denials, compassion quickly transmuted into frustration.
On his weekend tour of Canada Day festivities, Mr. Ford did not find himself greeted as a liberator as he straggled after a parade with a little entourage. Instead, he was alternately cheered and jeered, heckled by onlookers, berated by a handsome shirtless jogger, pecs rippling with civic outrage, who was quickly co-opted into an icon of patriotic resistance.
Instead of a positive media outreach, Mr. Ford faced one calamity after another. For this, we can thank the other bad habit that rehab won’t rid you of: your brother. Even before Rob Ford stepped in front of the cameras, Doug Ford’s McCarthyite incompetence was already dragging things back to the status quo.
First off, Doug picked a gratuitous fight with the media by excluding half of them from a press conference at which his brother got heckled anyway. He called one female reporter a “jihadi.” The Ford campaign promised interviews to everyone, then repeatedly cancelled most of them. Doug went on the offensive against the shirtless jogger – “a bad apple” – explaining that his attack on the mayor was racist, because “you can be racist against people that eat little red apples, you can be racist against people that have a drinking problem, you can be racist against people that are too fat.”
Doug is like King Midas’s least-beloved cousin: everything he touches turns into a tire fire.
Rob Ford went to rehab to combat substance abuse, and like everyone, I hope it takes. But substance abuse wasn’t the problem that Torontonians had with Rob Ford. The problem is that he has the moral bearings of a toddler.
In that sense, nothing has changed. What has changed is the city around him. Anger is rising. Anger is manifesting itself. Anger is taking off its shirt and going for a jog.
Going away to rehab had one other unexpected consequence: It gave Torontonians a taste of how much of a relief it was not to have Rob Ford in town. You could go to parades he wasn’t around to boycott, or sports games he wasn’t around to belligerently disrupt then deny belligerently disrupting. Sometimes you’d hear from the deputy mayor, bless him, who appeared to think there was more to the job than recreational pugilism. It felt like living in a city for a change, instead of being trapped inside an existential knot. And if it felt that good for two months, just imagine it for four years.
Consider it a teaser of better things to come. Whether or not he gets a bump in the polls, Rob Ford’s return won’t be the start of his comeback run. He’s still himself. Rob Ford went away to rehab, and Rob Ford came back.