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The camera triggered Rob-Ford-the-Politician autopilot and there was no override button. (Robyn Doolittle)
The camera triggered Rob-Ford-the-Politician autopilot and there was no override button. (Robyn Doolittle)

ROBYN DOOLITTLE

My relationship with Rob Ford? It’s complicated Add to ...

Late last week, a source of mine texted with news that Rob Ford’s family was heading to the hospital to say goodbye. His health was deteriorating and doctors believed he could be gone within days.

A little after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, my phone pinged again. It was over.

Toronto’s most famous mayor – arguably one of the most notorious politicians in the world – was dead at 46, 18 months after being diagnosed with an aggressive type of soft-tissue cancer.

Despite the warning I’d had, I was unprepared for the news. People always ask me: So what do you really think about Rob Ford? Well, my feelings are complicated.

I have been a full-time journalist for 10 years, which means I’ve spent half of my career devoted to his story. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about Mr. Ford and his time at city hall, including a book. If you happen to recognize my name, it is because of him. It’s weird to say, but I can’t think of anyone who has impacted my life more than Toronto’s former mayor. I will be professionally tied to him forever.

In the minutes after Mr. Ford’s death, what came to mind had nothing to do with drug dealers or crack videos or public personal attacks. Instead, what I thought about was a long way from the clamshell of Toronto’s City Hall. It was at the Pan American Games in Mexico, the one and only time that I think I had a real, if fleeting, moment with him.

Because for all of the coverage and exposure he received, I’m not sure there were many people who really knew him. I certainly didn’t. Why did he want to be mayor, when he seemed to hate the actual job? Why did he choose the occasionally harsh light of public life, when he was battling so many demons? What motivated him, made him happy, caused him fear? Lots of people have theories, but I think few know for sure. It was pretty well impossible to get a read on what he was thinking a lot of the time.

It was one evening in October, 2011, a year after Mr. Ford had been elected mayor. He and I both wound up at the same wine and cheese party during Guadalajara’s Pan American Games in Mexico.

Toronto would be hosting next, so Mr. Ford was there to accept the flag during the closing ceremonies. I was reporting on the event. As soon as the mayor arrived, people predictably swarmed him. They wanted to shake his hand and take a picture. When the crowd dissipated, I walked over to say hello.

“Mayor Ford,” I said. “We should get a photo.”

He turned toward me and grinned brightly.

“Sure!”

At the time, I was a city hall reporter with the Toronto Star, a paper Mr. Ford absolutely despised. His office wouldn’t even send us public news releases. I had an okay relationship with the mayor’s brother Doug, also a city councillor, but the mayor himself had been an impenetrable wall.

I hoped to take this rare opportunity, catching Mr. Ford away from the cameras and politics at city hall, to smooth relations. And for a second, I thought we were about to have a breakthrough.

But he seemed so uncharacteristically friendly toward me that, frankly, I suspected he had no idea who I was.

“Great!” I said. “Just to confirm: It’s me, Robyn Doolittle, from the Star.”

The smile evaporated. He shook his head.

“Oh, nah, sorry.”

Mr. Ford started to leave, but I thrust my camera into the hands of a woman standing nearby.

“No, no, no,” I said, directing his attention toward her. “We’re doing this.”

As soon as she pulled the camera to her face, Mr. Ford’s reflexes took over. He put his arm around my shoulder and flashed a toothy, warm smile. I thanked him and wished him good luck at the closing ceremony. I don’t remember him saying anything in reply. He was scowling when I left. Almost resentful, like I’d tricked him. And in that brief exchange, I think I saw part of the real Rob Ford. Here was a guy who obviously didn’t want to take a photo with me, yet he couldn’t help but snap into position when the camera came out. The camera triggered Rob-Ford-the-Politician autopilot and there was no override button. Looking at the picture now, I don’t see any hint of irritation on his part. The real man and his feelings were hidden away.

The next day, there were probably fewer than a dozen people on the flight home, including me, the mayor, his wife and a city hall staffer. The mayor sat alone and avoided me.

I later sent the photo to Doug and Rob. For the next year or so, whenever I walked by the two of them, Doug would tease his brother: “There’s your girlfriend!” Sometimes, Rob looked embarrassed. More often, he seemed irritated. He never addressed me.

Like I said, in the five years that I reported on Rob Ford – four as a city hall beat reporter with the Star, one as an investigative reporter with The Globe – my brief interaction with him in Mexico was the only time I really talked to him.

Sure, I’ve asked Mr. Ford plenty of questions in news conferences (whether he replied or not depended on the story in question). And of course, I was around him hundreds of times, whether it was on the campaign trail or at city hall or some event. Back before Mr. Ford became mayor, when he was just an outspoken city councillor with a penchant for making outlandish, sometimes offensive, comments, he would call me to offer brief, colourful criticism of his proudly progressive mayoral predecessor, David Miller.

But he and I never went for coffee or had a meal or even a proper conversation. This was the experience of almost every journalist I know on the city hall beat. Toronto’s former mayor was ferociously private, mistrustful and closed off. Not just with the media, but his colleagues on council and even his own staff. Mr. Ford spoke in memorized slogans, which he could utter in an almost involuntary torrent of talking points, depending on the prompt: Bad lefties. Gravy train. Taxpayers. Subways, subways, subways. It was a script worn like armour, a wall erected around him.

In major cities around the world, mayor’s offices will typically release their daily itinerary to the press gallery. Not only did Mr. Ford’s staff not tell any of us where he was going to be on any given day, they often had no idea themselves.

We would have to file freedom-of-information requests to get our hands on his schedule, which was useful to figure out what he was doing after the fact, but useless for day-of planning. The FOI process is something journalists typically use to get their hands on sensitive government and public-sector documents. They cost money to file and take months to get back. It was an odd and inefficient way to find out what Toronto’s mayor had been up to.

Instead, journalists relied on social media to track his whereabouts as if he were an elusive pop star and not the mayor of our city. Whenever Mr. Ford wasn’t around, we’d open Twitter or Instagram and search by keyword, “Rob Ford,” “Mayor Ford” or “just saw the mayor!” Inevitably, someone would have posted a photo.

It was through this process that I, and others, first saw signs of Mr. Ford’s addiction. Week after week, he kept popping up, buying mickeys of vodka during the day or right after work. Later into his term – with the political climate at city hall growing more tense by the day – those photos began to include shots of a sweaty and dishevelled-looking mayor hanging out at bars.

From 2010 onward, Mr. Ford was chronicled in unprecedented detail. Everything he said and did seemed to make news. It was the most popular reality show on air.

The race for mayor. A budget showdown. The dramatic conflict-of-interest trial where he nearly lost his job. Then the Garrison Ball, the drinking and the first crack video. Next, a police investigation, a public meltdown and the Steak Queen incident and, finally, the dramatic and sad climax: In the midst of a high-stakes race for re-election, a second video of Mr. Ford smoking crack. And this time, there were photos to prove it. It forced him to step back from the race and enter rehab. A few months later, he was diagnosed with cancer. And now he’s gone. The public watched it all unfold in real time.

So who was Rob Ford? It’s a question people love to ask and answer.

His supporters always described him as authentic, no matter what he had been up to and no matter how dishonestly he denied it.

I have interviewed dozens and dozens of loyal Ford Nation members from the time of his mayoral run and postcrack scandal. His followers’ faith never diminished.

When confronted with bad behaviour, Mr. Ford would attack. He famously accused me and the Star of fabricating the story about his drinking problem and later denied that he had been filmed smoking crack cocaine. (It’s why, when I was approached about another video, The Globe made sure to get screenshots of the footage so it would be too irrefutable to deny.)

The Fords went on radio and falsely accused me by name of stalking their elderly mother. They suggested I needed counselling. The Fords tried to destroy me – and if you think that sounds dramatic, it’s because you weren’t on the receiving end of their direct assaults and the barrage of mail and threats that would follow from Ford Nation. The anger that propelled Mr. Ford to office could easily be diverted to people who seemed to stand in his way.

In another incident – one that still infuriates me – the mayor accused one of my former colleagues of looking into his backyard and taking photos of his children. Later, Mr. Ford doubled down and called my friend a pedophile.

Why? I have a guess. That afternoon, I had warned the mayor’s chief of staff that we were working on a story about Mr. Ford’s drug use.

The mayor later admitted he’d made the entire backyard story up.

Apparently, though, not everyone caught the correction. After the mayor died, Don Cherry tweeted about the harassment Mr. Ford endured while in office, “reporters spying over his fence” and such.

I have been asked what I will remember most from the Ford years. It’s the anger. The intense, polarizing hyperbole, not just around city hall, but around the city itself during his time in office.

To Mr. Ford’s fiercely loyal supporters, any criticism, any published fact that cast their man in an unflattering light was a direct attack on what they held near and dear. And that made them even angrier.

That anger exists today. It just no longer has a champion. I suspect it will find a new one.

Minutes after Mr. Ford’s death made the news, messages saying various versions of “Are you happy now?” began arriving in my inbox.

Of course I’m not.

Everything about Rob Ford’s passing is horribly sad. He was just 46. He had two young children and a wife. It seemed that since his diagnosis, he was on the right track where his addictions were concerned.

At his best, he could be charming and personable. And he really would return constituents’ phone calls. His success is a lesson for the political class. Voters feel so unheard and ignored that they’re willing to overlook almost anything for a leader that they believe cares and will listen to them.

And even after the most unsavoury details had been exposed, Mr. Ford was still a rock star, mobbed wherever he went, appearing on late-night television, the subject of an opening skit on Saturday Night Live. He was an international celebrity.

Unless you were living in Toronto at the time, it was difficult to grasp the dark parts of the Ford story amid the confusing spectacle. And even here, that could be hard.

In November, 2013, a few days after he finally admitted to smoking crack cocaine and shortly before city council would strip him of most of his civic power, Rob Ford released a limited edition line of “Robbie Bobbie” bobbleheads, available for $20 apiece.

Shortly before the dolls went on sale, members of the city hall press gallery were given an opportunity to buy one in advance. When Mr. Ford’s assistant came around to collect the cash, I sheepishly reached into my wallet and handed over a crisp bill.

I couldn’t help it. He may have tried to ruin me, but I wanted a memento.

When the staffer delivered the bobblehead, she had a surprise: “He signed it to you.”

“Robyn – Mayor Rob Ford.”

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