Ivor Tossell writes about online culture, urban affairs and technology
For a moment Wednesday night – just for a moment – it seemed that Rob Ford had finally faced reality. When the news broke that Toronto's mayor was taking a leave to tackle his addictions, it seemed for a few shining minutes that Ford had taken proactively the one step that might lift his struggling election campaign.
Unfortunately, that's just not Rob Ford's way.
Within minutes of the first reports that he'd stepped away, it became clear that a series of appalling new recordings and reports had forced Mr. Ford's hand. There he was, the mayor who'd sworn to clean up his act, holding another damn crack pipe, hanging out with alleged crooks, tossing off ethnic slurs, drunkenly threatening violence on his bar mates and grotesquely wishing sex upon the woman he once appointed his TTC chair.
Now the mayor is gone to rehab. In a way, it's a long-awaited admission that all these things Mr. Ford said were fine were, in fact, not fine; a small but welcome victory for reality as you and I know it. But it also raises the near-certainty that his rehab is going to play a central part of Ford's campaign when he gets back. In a month or so, we will meet Rob Ford the redeemed, come back to ask for his second chance. And redemption is one hell of a drug.
It's hard to draw a bead on what happened Wednesday without getting snarled in the awful tangle of emotions Mr. Ford leaves behind. Anger, at the lies and betrayals; hope that he'll find some real help in treatment and perhaps an escape from some of the misery that seems to dog him; awkwardness, at speaking politically about something as intensely personal; apprehension at how redemption's emotional pull could sway the mayoral race.
Politically, Mr. Ford is in a tough spot now. His die-hard support in Toronto is somewhere between 25 per cent and 30 per cent, which is disconcertingly large in and of itself, but not nearly enough to get him re-elected. What's more, Mr. Ford is stuck in the polls. There aren't many Torontonians who haven't made up their minds about Rob Ford. About half of them say they won't vote for him again, no matter what. Meanwhile, the fire seems to have gone out of Ford Nation's belly. Mr. Ford's campaign launch, while respectably-attended, occupied a fraction of the gigantic hall his team booked. They just couldn't mobilize their people to come.
A redemption story would shake things up. Mr. Ford is the perfect actor for the part, a natural-born victim with a sense of mission. He could turn himself into his own underdog, a loveable guy finally unshackled from the demons that have haunted him. It would re-energize his base, and could cause voters who'd written him off to at least look again. After three and a half years of Rob Ford, Toronto's voters might bite for a feel-good story, even if it comes from Rob Ford.
Much depends on whether Mr. Ford actually seems like a new man when he returns, which is a tall order for a short break. If Mr. Ford comes out of rehab with a genuine change of attitude, can muster penitence instead of belligerence, and somehow stay on the wagon for five months, he will come around asking for the world's biggest mulligan. It would reframe the race as a referendum not just on Mr. Ford, but on the very idea of second chances.
But to have any hope of even running on that idea, Mr. Ford would have to seem like a renewed man, and no meaningful burst of self-awareness seems to have arrived just yet. Quite the opposite: He looks like a man sent packing in the most belated possible manner. His first published reaction to last night's reports was the kind of transcendental denial that only Rob Ford can muster. In conversation with the Toronto Sun's Joe Warmington, the columnist who serves as Mr. Ford's personal Oprah come confession-time, the mayor said he couldn't actually remember saying any of the things the tape has coming out of his mouth.
So we're still lost in Mr. Ford's hall of mirrors, in which the mayor cannot be held accountable for his actions because the mayor does not remember his actions, due to a substance abuse problem that the mayor doesn't believe exists in the first place. As a way of dodging responsibility, it's an ingenious failsafe. Even now, Mr. Ford hasn't admitted a drug problem. His written statement specifically owns up to "a problem with alcohol" – and nothing else. This is not promising.
This mental abyss has become our normal, and it's amazing what you can normalize when there's nothing to be done about it except wait for the election. Yet sometimes we all fall off the wagon of feigned normality together, and wake up, look around, and realize how far gone we really are.
The mayor of Toronto smokes crack, especially when he says he's not smoking crack. The mayor of Toronto pals around with criminals, which is none of your business after work hours. The mayor of Toronto is fighting with Justin Bieber and vomiting in a club's washrooms.
The mayor of Toronto is openly at war with the people who run the city, those who have not yet quit or been fired: His council, his police chief, his transit commission, his housing board, his city manager, who just this week Ford challenged to run in the election if he wouldn't support the mayor's bogus budget figures. The mayor of Toronto is sometimes followed around by a bunch of cops in a Cessna. The mayor of Toronto's friends sometimes get beaten with lead pipes when videos go missing. One person he was pictured hanging around with was shot dead, but we don't really talk about that anymore. The mayor of Toronto, on this point and all others, is past the point of apologies.
Rehabilitation is not redemption, and I think Toronto's voters know that, even the ones who knowingly voted in a flawed man in the hopes that he'd shake things up. Redemption has a price, and it's a price Rob Ford has been unwilling to pay this whole time. Mr. Ford's deep faith in the power of the crowd tells him that redemption comes at the ballot box. But any voters willing to countenance a redeemed Mr. Ford will be looking for signs of it before they cast their votes. That's the corner Mr. Ford's in. Any serious attempt to take responsibility for his behaviour, after all this, could only end in one act: his resignation. Redemption starts there.