An error-laced performance by Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman on CNN, which was supposed to repair the city's SARS-tainted reputation, provoked criticism, embarrassment, laughter -- and some long sighs -- at home and abroad yesterday.
"If we had to rely on the mayor's basis of information, no tourist would ever come to Toronto," said Howard Moscoe, a city councillor and long-time adversary of the mayor.
"I really wish he could have gotten the facts straight so he could have helped Toronto more. We would have been much better off if we had put the mayor under quarantine before the interview."
Mr. Lastman made several mistakes and gave at times befuddled replies during a five-minute interview with CNN's Aaron Brown late Thursday night.
He said he had not heard of the World Health Organization, seemed confused about how many SARS cases Toronto has had, and suggested 500 members of a religious group had been exposed to the virus in the Philippines, even though the exposure was in Toronto.
His performance even attracted the notice of comedian Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, which airs on Comedy Central in the United States and on The Comedy Network in Canada.
After running a clip of Mr. Lastman's interview, Mr. Stewart commented: "You know, I was thinking of going to Toronto, but I've heard the mayor is kind of a dick. By the way, for more information on Toronto, pick up a copy of the mayor's new city guide, Toronto: What the Hell?"
Mr. Lastman has already announced that he will not run for municipal re-election this fall.
Yesterday, several of those running to succeed him in the Nov. 10 vote expressed muted to outright consternation over the CNN interview.
"I didn't see CNN, but a number of people stopped me as I have been going out and about today and saying, 'Oh my God,' " said Barbara Hall, who was mayor of the former city of Toronto before amalgamation. She will run again this year. Later, she told reporters, "some things speak for themselves."
A spokesman for Mr. Lastman strongly defended the mayor.
"So this little guy isn't perfect," Scott Magnish said about the mayor's CNN gaffes and his apoplectic reaction this week to the World Health Organization's travel advisory warning people not to visit Toronto.
"But our intention is to get out the word that Toronto is safe, and in 48 hours we've changed a Toronto story into an international story, and people around the world are now talking about Toronto," Mr. Magnish said.
The mayor has been criticized, along with city council, for responding too slowly to the economic fallout of the deadly virus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome.
In the past month, Mr. Lastman has been absent from his office about 13 days because he is on a stepped-up course of interferon to cope with a long-time condition of hepatitis C. But he is now back on the job.
His appearance Thursday night on CNN was part of a quickly organized blitz of international media to counter the black eye Toronto received from the WHO advisory.
At one point in the interview, the flustered mayor said one million people a year take Toronto transit -- it's actually more than one million daily -- and he had no clue how many people in the city were in quarantine or had SARS symptoms.
Mr. Lastman is well known for his verbal gaffes. But he has had a world audience this week as he raged against the WHO advisory and confused the organization with the Centers for Disease Control in the United States.
Toronto Councillor David Miller, a mayoralty candidate, said, "Mel was being Mel when he asked, 'Who is WHO?' But that is an embarrassing remark when made outside Toronto to the world."
Former federal MP John Nunziata, another mayoralty candidate, criticized Mr. Lastman for not having his facts straight.
"I don't think he conveyed our position as strongly as he could have," he said.
The mayor, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien should have gone to Geneva to convince WHO to change its mind, he added.
Toronto City Councillor Olivia Chow, who watched the interview, was determined to be charitable.
"Anyone appearing from the city of Toronto would help to say this is a safe city and we have turned the corner," she said.
But when asked to rate the mayor's performance, she laughed and said he was "good on the emotions, but not the facts."
- Three more SARS patients have died in Toronto, bringing to 19 the toll taken by the disease in Canada. Unlike the previous deaths, a man, 44, had no underlying health problems, making him the first otherwise healthy individual to succumb to SARS in Canada.
- Ontario Premier Ernie Eves said that updated facts about Canadian SARS cases will be presented to the World Health Organization on Tuesday, as part of the province's bid to get the organization to lift its travel advisory against Toronto.
- Prime Minister Jean Chrétien spoke to World Health Organization director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland yesterday but received no assurance that the organization's travel advisory will be lifted against Toronto.
- The SARS virus has crossed a frightening new threshold, making its way into the Chinese countryside, where public health officials fear it will run riot because of the utter lack of health infrastructure.