Pity the poor souls who labour in the city hall press gallery. They are suffering from PRFS: post-Rob Ford syndrome.
For the past four years, they had the best seat in the house for the wildest story in Canadian politics. Even before Mr. Ford became famous around the world as Der Crack-Burgermeister (as one German newspaper put it), reporters could depend on him to supply a steady stream of headlines. Here was a guy who made news as naturally as most men draw breath.
He made news when he called the cops on a female comedian who showed up on his driveway in a plastic breast plate. He made news when he called the head of the transit commission to order a bus to pick up the high-school football team he coached. He made news for showing up at a fried-chicken joint in the midst of a public dieting drive. He made news when he was caught reading behind the wheel on one of Toronto's busiest highways – and explained unapologetically that he was just trying to catch up on some work.
If the mayor was having an off day, reporters could rely on his brother Doug "the smart one" Ford to step up to the plate. It was Doug who proposed putting a monorail, a sail-in hotel and the world's biggest Ferris Wheel on the Port Lands east of Toronto harbour. It was Doug who said of literary legend Margaret Atwood that if she passed by him "I wouldn't have a clue who she is" after they clashed over the library budget. When he made that remark, destined to get ink across the country, one reporter turned to her colleagues and exclaimed: "I love that man."
Now it's all over. With Rob sidelined by cancer and Doug defeated in his bid to be mayor, the press gallery has lost its best material. The fishing will never be as good as it was in the Ford years, when the stories all but jumped into the boat.
When reporters asked him to reflect on his term in office recently, the mayor chuckled and said: "It will definitely be remembered, put it that way … No one's going to forget it." He could say that again.
The new mayor to be, John Tory, is an admirable person in many ways. Colourful he is not. He speaks in long, weaving sentences that often fail to yield a usable quote, much less an outrageous saying as with the ones Mr. Ford used to spout like Old Faithful.
His only addiction seems to be to work. Unlike Mr. Ford, who sometimes rolled into the office at the crack of noon, Mr. Tory gets to city hall around 6:30 in the morning and is often at various events well into the evening. When he addressed journalists for the first time, in Nathan Phillips Square, he calmly answered all their questions without once calling them maggots.
As he turned to walk back to his office, muscle memory told reporters and photographers to give chase. Then it dawned: there was no need. The days of pursuing the mayor into parking garages are over. So are the days of dashing for the back door to grab a quote from the never-shy Doug when his big black Lincoln pulled into its spot behind City Hall.
Like demobilized soldiers back from the front, city hall reporters are wondering what to do now that the action has stopped. A veteran columnist packed his stuff in a cardboard box and left to write about business instead. One respected reporter headed off to Washington; another will follow soon.
Those that remain are wondering if anyone will pay attention to what they report now that the big fella is moving out of the mayor's office. Once, grinning friends and neighbours told them: "You sure have lots to write about;" now they ask: "What are you going to write about now?"
Things around the gallery have fallen so quiet that one reporter who once complained about the exhausting pace had time to flip through a stack of old front pages from the Ford era. "A mayor under siege," blared one. "Showdown, spectacle and 'war' at City Hall," said another. Ah, those were the days.
CP24, the breaking-news channel whose reporters were stationed more or less permanently outside the mayor's office, seems particularly bereft. It was there to catch the moment live when the mayor made his famous remark about his domestic dining habits. Now what? One day last week, it resorted to airing video from a woman who saw cockroaches at a local McDonald's. On the same day, the tabloid Toronto Sun, whose office walls are papered with splashy front pages from the Ford days, found itself reporting the stunning news that Mr. Tory "says he will speed up some of the work of a task force" to review the city's public-housing agency. Try getting readers to click on that.
Whatever his errors and sins, the mayor was always watchable. Who can forget the day a couple of years ago when he visited the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, rolled up his sleeves and washed down a steer called Ronald? "Those cattle, they're rock solid," he said. When Mr. Tory visited the fair this month, he combed a cow. It was not the same.
Of course, what is bad for the press is great for the city. Peace, order and good government have moved back into city hall. With Mr. Tory due to take over early next month, Toronto is well on its way to earning back its reputation as a pleasant, polite city where nothing much ever happens. After the Ford follies, Toronto is ready to embrace that kind of obscurity.
Even the press should think twice before getting too nostalgic about the Ford era. Chasing the mayor down stairwells and staking out his office for hours on end got to be tiresome. The media only pursued him because he refused to answer legitimate questions that the whole city was asking. He wrote off most journalists as enemies, doling out the favour of his company mainly to sympathetic columnists and radio talk show hosts.
Besides, there will be lots of other issues to cover in the post-Ford years: the struggle to build better transit; the politicking around the transition to the new mayor; the challenge of integrating and employing tens of thousands of new immigrants.
There really are a million stories in the naked city, most of them more important than what Rob Ford did in his sister"s basement. Remember, too, that Mr. Ford is not completely out of the picture. Although he withdrew from the race for mayor to get treatment for cancer, voters elected him to represent his old Etobicoke ward. If he is healthy enough, he might return to city council to keep things amusing.
Still, down at the gallery, it is proving hard to let go. When it was announced that Mr. Ford was coming down to City Hall on Friday to peddle Ford bobbleheads for charity, reporters and photographers massed outside his office for what some were calling the last stakeout, gathering behind the crowd-control tape as of old and pressing forward every time the elevator opened in case he appeared. When he finally came out of his office to take questions, there was a small rumpus as they surged around him.
They know it in their bones: as long as deadlines loom, as long as "uneasy calms" prevail, as long as newsroom fridges grow mouldy, they will never see another story quite like the Fords.