Rob Ford has managed to do for Toronto what countless millions in tourism promotion dollars never could. He's made it look interesting. Not that he's made anyone, outside of the voracious foreign media, want to visit. But he's put his city on the map like no mayor before him.
Toronto is suddenly so much part of the American consciousness – and subconscious – that references to it have begun slipping out unexpectedly. CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux reported on a weekend storm by referring to the "Toronto, er, tornado" that ripped through the Midwest.
Toronto, tornado, it's easy to mix them up. When the burly mayor of Canada's largest city races through the council chamber like a whirling column of air, knocking down everything and everyone in his path, it's only natural to confuse him with a violent force of nature.
If it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only seconds to destroy it, Mr. Ford has shattered Toronto's image as Chicago's saner sister city in less time than it takes to smoke a rock of crack. It turns out we've got gangs, guns and law-unabiding politicians, too.
Americans are gobsmacked. Those on the right have long viewed Canada as the socialist experiment to the north where even conservatives exhibit pinko tendencies. Those on the left have long viewed Canada as the socialist experiment to the north that they fantasize about moving to after the Tea Party takes over their country. Imagine their horror on learning that Toronto has Tea Partiers, too. And one of them is the mayor.
"This seems so out of character for staid Canadians," an American friend living in San Francisco told me. "It doesn't fit, which makes it particularly amusing and somehow makes us feel better about ourselves because we're not the only nation with buffoon politicians."
Indeed, Mr. Ford has set a new standard for buffoonery that won't be soon surpassed. Not by Silvio Berlusconi. Not by Bob Filner, the ex-mayor of San Diego who confessed to being a serial sexual harasser. Not by Anthony Weiner, the wannabe New York mayor with a puerile penchant for penile selfies.
"The crack-smoking mayor of Toronto has done it again," Fox News anchor Shepard Smith announced at the beginning of his show the other day. I can't remember just what Mr. Ford had done that time, because, let's face it, who can keep up any more? One embarrassment bleeds into the next. Just when you think the shock value is wearing off, you're hit with another 10,000 volts.
That helps explain the U.S. media's morbid fascination. When scandal hits American politicians, they typically hire a battery of public-relations and crisis-management experts and follow a tight script to control the damage. For journalists, covering the story becomes a frustrating exercise in finding new angles in what quickly becomes old news. But in Toronto, it's Rob and Doug unplugged, unscripted and unleashed all the time.
Sure, the mayor has his talking points. "I effed up." "I'm not perfect." "I shouldn't have got hammered down at the Danforth." Or, as he repeated to NBC's Matt Lauer on Tuesday: "I was very, very inebriated."
But for the U.S. media, covering the Ford saga is like filming a real-life version of Speed (no pun intended), the 1994 Keanu Reeves blockbuster in which the protagonist has to keep a city bus moving at 50 miles an hour to prevent a bomb onboard from exploding. The Fords have the pedal to the metal. Only this isn't Hollywood – they actually might crash this thing.
CNN's Bill Weir seemed genuinely discombobulated after interviewing the mayor at a Toronto social housing project, where one forgiving resident mused that Mr. Ford was either set up or took to smoking crack because he "just got fed up with everything." How, Mr. Weir wondered, could this "slash-and-burn fiscal conservative" become such a rock star among those most dependent on the welfare state?
According to Doug Ford, it's because his brother is really "a massive social liberal." No doubt, that came as a shock to Toronto's Pride organizers and all those who voted for Mr. Ford precisely to prevent an authentic social liberal (George Smitherman) from becoming mayor.
It's all made Canada's biggest city look kind of "effed up." Americans used to think of Toronto as a nice place to live, but not a place you'd care to visit. Now, thanks to the Fords, they probably think it's neither.