'Tis bliss to be a talk-show host in Toronto. The air time fills itself. The phone lines are jammed with calls from citizens with strong views about our mayor. Some people think he's a drunken buffoon. Some think he's being persecuted by the left-wing radicals at the Toronto Star. Some think that, even though everything the Toronto Star says is probably true, so what? The guy's only human. Everyone's got a right to get plastered from time to time.
As for the rest of the country, I know what you're thinking. You think we're getting our comeuppance. We act so snooty and superior, but our mayor is a boob and our city is a laughingstock.
That's true. But it isn't funny any more. City Hall is as paralyzed as our traffic. The mayor's reform agenda has ground to a halt. Rampant condo development is overrunning us like kudzu vines. City services are still bloated, old-fashioned and inefficient. There are no long-term plans for transportation, economic development, housing or immigrant settlement – big regional issues that affect a fifth of Canada's population. People who really care about the city are in despair.
I claim no personal knowledge of the mayor's drinking habits. But the Toronto Star's reporting (despite its plethora of anonymous sources) strikes me as plausible. At one high-profile gala dinner, he was reportedly asked to leave because he was so inebriated. Unidentified sources in the mayor's office allege he has an alcohol abuse problem. If true, these people obviously believe the time has come for a public intervention.
The mayor has chosen to deny it all. He called the Star stories outright lies.
Does the Star have an agenda? Of course it does. The paper's editors believe that Rob Ford is a menace and a fool. That doesn't mean its reporting isn't accurate. Even his supporters have been turned off by his erratic behaviour and his ruinously bad judgment.
Once upon a time, people didn't mind if their leaders had a few bad habits. Ralph Klein, the populist premier of Alberta, was widely liked because people felt he was a man you could sit down with and have a drink or three. But Mr. Klein was genial and relaxed, and Mr. Ford is tense and angry. Even tolerance for Mr. Klein ran out when he wandered into a homeless shelter one night and picked a fight with residents. When he owned up to his problem and promised to get help, everyone instantly forgave him.
Today, our expectations about the conduct of public figures are greater than ever before. We expect our politicians and business leaders to be disciplined and restrained, and certainly to hold their liquor. No big-city mayor can show up conspicuously drunk at a gala dinner and expect it to go unreported. We expect our senior officials to be on duty whenever they're in public and, if they're not capable of that, then they shouldn't have the job.
Whatever the truth about Mr. Ford's drinking, the man looks like a walking time bomb. You can't help thinking that a coronary, a stroke or a burst blood vessel could fell him any time. He badly needs some help with anger management. It's easy to imagine that, one of these days, he'll get so angry he'll haul off and pop someone in the nose.
If Mr. Ford announced tomorrow that he's checking into rehab, all of Toronto would be on his side. Right now, he just strikes me as someone who's dangerously in denial – of the havoc he's wreaking on himself, his family and his city. And that's a tragedy for all of us.