Well, I wasn’t going to weigh in on Toronto’s (current) mayor’s (current) problems.
Enough ink has been spilled and hot air expelled to sail a small armada of pundits into the sunset. But so many people have been pontificating about how Rob Ford should be handling this crisis, what sort of “damage control” he should be doing, that my pen is obliged to flash from its scabbard – especially since I think they’re all dead wrong.
The consensus seems to be that Ford should confront the story head on, face the sea of cameras and confess, apologize or elaborate on his previous refutations – whatever. Say something.
Under normal circumstances, I’d agree with these statements. “Admit and apologize” before you’re forced to is in fact the boilerplate advice you get from spin doctors and PR experts these days – so much so it’s easy to forget this type of approach is, historically, quite new.
For the longest time, “stonewall and deny” was the standard approach. But the world has changed dramatically since, say, Nixon and Watergate, and what damage-control experts have learned from recent examples is that we’ve all underestimated the public’s capacity to understand that their politicians are human beings who make mistakes – and to forgive them.
A watershed case of modern damage control involved former Alberta premier Ralph Klein. One night in 2001, on his way back from a Christmas party, an overrefreshed Klein dropped in to a homeless shelter and, slurring his words, berated several of them for not having jobs. Before his driver could drag him off, he reached in his pocket and contemptuously threw a handful of change at them.
At first, Klein tried the stonewall/deny approach. His chief of staff, Peter Elzinga, claimed he’d gone out of “the goodness of his heart” to distribute money to the poor. Klein said, “During my time in politics, I have periodically made such unscheduled visits, because they give me the opportunity to chat privately and honestly.”
Problem with this approach: 1) No one bought it, 2) there were too many witnesses to gainsay his version of events, 3) his lie was a too-obvious nose-stretcher and an insult to the collective intelligence of his constituents. His approval ratings began to plummet precipitously.
Then he made a bold move: He called a press conference to say, in effect, “I am a drunk.” That he had long wrestled with the “awful beast” of alcoholism, even that sometimes he needed some of the old “hair of the dog” to continue his day – as premier! He didn’t even promise to quit drinking. Just to “fight this devil” and “take it one day at a time.”
A surprising thing happened: The people of Alberta collectively removed their Stetsons, gazed across the endless prairies, and said to themselves: “He’s only human. I don’t mind the odd drop myself.” And lo and behold, his approval ratings went through the roof.
Moral of the story: The one thing the public cannot forgive is having their intelligence insulted by a too-obvious nose-stretcher. Anything else – hey, we’re all human. But I think it’s naive to think pulling a “Ralph Klein” will help Rob Ford. Either what’s alleged to be on that tape is true, or it isn’t. If it is – well, what’s alleged is no mere indiscretion, or even an understandable battle with the bottle. What is alleged is much further “out there.” It’s dark, it’s underground (to me the most potentially damning detail in the reporters’ descriptions of the videotape is the “afternoon sunlight” streaming through the windows).
If Rob Ford were to come forward to say that what’s on the tape is real, I can’t imagine how that day would be anything other than the last day of his mayoralty, and no amount of references to rehab or “one day at a time” would change that.
And if the video is a fabrication – well, he’s already said it’s “ridiculous.” What more is there to say? Rob Ford’s best bet – in terms of hanging onto office as long as he can – is to adopt the old-school approach and say absolutely nothing until he absolutely has to. It’s a long shot, but at this point it seems like about the only shot he’s got.