It is one of the mixed blessings of our political culture that our memories tend to be rather short. Accomplishments and failures of previous administrations are often forgotten or misappropriated as the next lot takes over. This seems particularly true of municipal politics. Although every city council has long-serving members, mayors tend to attract attention only when in office. For all their notoriety, one hears little discussion of Sam Sullivan (Vancouver), Mel Lastman (Toronto), Sam Katz (Winnipeg) or Andy Wells (St. John’s) after their departures. Polarizing figures they may have been, even national laughing stocks occasionally, but once gone they are confined to the realms of pub trivia.
Even in Toronto there is little talk of Canada’s most infamous chief magistrate these days, although he continues to serve as a city councillor. It is as if the slow painful exit of Rob Ford from the public stage has been relegated to some dark corner of Toronto’s collective unconscious. He has resumed his status as a local curiosity, filling the (entirely appropriate) role of right-wing gadfly to the current mayor and the other members of Toronto city council.
Today it is hard to fathom that less than two years ago North America and large parts of the world were transfixed by the tragicomic figure of Rob Ford and his publicly self-inflicted wounds. The latest two contributions to the considerable print content generated by the Ford saga are Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable — How I Tried to Help the World’s Most Notorious Mayor and The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford. The first is by Mark Towhey, a senior strategist and staffer in Ford’s mayoral office and 2010 election campaign (with jacket credit given to respected film and television journalist Johanna Schneller); the second by long-time Toronto city councillor and former journalist John Filion.
In discussing Uncontrollable I will refer to Towhey alone as the narrator although Schneller is rightly given credit on the cover. Towhey never claims to be a writer and Schneller captures his voice perfectly, complete with profane expletives in the first person narrative. The book clips along in crisp clean language and mostly confines itself to events Towhey witnessed first hand. The narrative proceeds chronologically from Towhey’s first encounters with Ford while a campaign strategist in early 2010 through election victory, transition, the early days of agenda implementing and the slow self-destruction of Rob Ford’s mayoralty, culminating, for Towhey, in his extremely public dismissal in May 2013.
Rather than offering any stunning revelations, Uncontrollable confirms missing portions of events alluded to in the press, suspected among inside observers, or released in bits and pieces by the Toronto police service and provincial courts. The bulk of the book is Towhey’s description of his own achievements at City Hall woven through with his concerns and suspicions about Ford’s increasingly erratic and potentially illegal behaviour.
It becomes clear early on that Uncontrollable is written for a U.S. audience who witnessed only the international media spectacle commencing with the initial story of the so-called crack video in May 2013 up to Ford’s departure from the 2014 mayoralty race to seek treatment for cancer. There are explanations of Canadian governance and political offices unnecessary for domestic readers. This seems a combination of the publisher’s wish to cash in on Ford’s infamy (fair enough) and a desire by Towhey to solicit political work in the upcoming U.S. election. The latter purpose seems especially pertinent. There are subtle factual errors that feel designed to portray Toronto as a moderately dysfunctional blank slate waiting for Towhey to come in and set it straight through the personal appeal of his populist boss. For example, the Toronto Islands are neither human-made nor populated with “shanty homes”; the vast Exhibition Place facility, while underused, is hardly empty “347 days of the year.” Few here in Canada would describe The Globe and Mail as “left-wing” and it is simple hubris for Towhey to claim that he personally made “Canadian labour relations history” in renewing union contracts without labour action in early 2012.
For readers wanting all the salacious details of daily life with the Fords there is enough to satisfy—and to confirm what many Torontonians assumed to be true at the time. (The plural “Fords” refers to Rob the mayor, his older bother Doug and occasionally the rest of the Ford clan. Both books use the plural freely and interchangeably.) As Towhey takes us through his own achievements he simultaneously realizes Ford’s disengagement in the day-to-day minutiae and broader policy debates of governance. All this was glaringly obvious in Ford’s conduct as a councillor from 2000 to 2010. Little changed when he was mayor. Both Towhey and Filion express frustration at Ford’s obsession with one-on-one contact with constituents. As both acknowledge, this is a highly useful skill for a local representative, which kept Ford elected three times as councillor and re-elected a fourth time in 2014 despite his physical inability to campaign. But for a mayor of a city of nearly three million people with a $14 billion budget, it was a destructive distraction from the demands of the job.
Towhey does credit Ford with some early successes in the immediate wake of his election victory, but blames a lack of focus and consequent absence of results later in his term on a combination of factors: Ford family intrigue, questionable figures occasionally popping up in Ford’s personal life and, somewhat vindictively, other staff in the mayor’s office. Singled out for particular opprobrium are “The Night Shift”—a group of Conservative operatives, friends and family from patriarch Doug Ford Sr.’s brief time as an member of the provincial parliament under Mike Harris. Members of this group would advise the Fords during regular late-night phone calls that would daily change the mayor’s mind after a course of action had been implemented. Most jarring in Towhey’s telling is the author’s contempt for senior city staff (the eminently respectable and long suffering city manager Joe Pennachetti being a notable exception) and members of council. Towhey boasts of his manipulations of staff and takes pride in lying to seemingly hapless allies to win council votes. Later as the political climate darkens, Towhey sees these same allies as conspiring to betray the mayor’s office. Towhey’s attempts to portray himself as a noble staffer struggling to bring common sense to a dysfunctional and sclerotic municipal administration end up coming off as petty score settling. He asks for our sympathy or, at least, our understanding. That in itself is not unreasonable, given the extremely difficult, even traumatic, working environment he was operating in, but at the same time he cannot seem to help alienating us with his glib self-absolutions.
This conflict comes through most clearly in the relating of two now well-known events in the Ford downfall; a disturbing late-night phone call from Ford to Towhey during a domestic conflict in the Ford home and Ford’s drunken escapades on St. Patrick’s Day 2013. Towhey has taken much criticism for his actions, or lack thereof, in response to the first of these. Guns and drugs in addition to past incidents and indiscretions are referred to during the call. Ford’s children are in the house and are dragged into the dispute between Ford and his wife, Renata. Towhey tells us of his fear that something far more serious than a verbal argument may be taking place and claims to have his hand on a second phone to dial 911. He does not make that call. For that decision, many have criticized Towhey. Nor can he offer any compelling explanation why no one calls the police, when Ford jumps into his car and drives off after being transported home in a cab, drunk, at 4 a.m., at the end of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Towhey, perhaps unintentionally, implies but never states that he does not trust the police service, particularly the local division serving Ford’s neighbourhood, to protect Ford, as has often been rumoured, and is alluded to also in Filion’s book.
The fundamental frustration with Uncontrollable is Towhey’s role in his own story. He claims at various points to be charmed by Ford’s skin-deep affability and proclaimed dedication to the “working guy” against the “elites” of the city, but is also quite clear from the outset about his doubts about Ford’s character, commitment to office, friends and recreational habits. So why does he stay? Towhey often refers to personal financial troubles and not wanting to forego a steady paycheque while making clear his military dedication to duty, probity and adherence to the law. Yet, although he did not actively abet Ford’s descent, he seems to have let it continue while taking considerable pleasure in wielding power at City Hall. Did Ford dupe Towhey or did Towhey just enjoy exercising the power Ford could not be bothered with? Readers are left to draw their own conclusions. At the book’s end, Towhey attempts to claim a public policy legacy of the Ford administration, but struggles to define it. The best he can come up with is: “Perhaps it is a new sense of what Toronto is and isn’t. Ford wasn’t old guard WASPy, dull. Neither is Toronto, not anymore.”
This is an awkward and lazy conclusion to an otherwise well-written book. Few would accuse Ford’s immediate predecessor David Miller of being old guard or Miller’s predecessor Mel Lastman of being WASPy and dull. If Towhey’s main purpose is to convince us that he could have ushered in a new golden age for Toronto if only the Fords had listened to him, he fails to make his case. He seems more genuine when he tells us of his personal struggles and concern for other staffers still struggling with the aftermath of their time in the Ford administration. If Uncontrollable confirms that Rob Ford indeed was uncontrollable, the subtitle’s assertion that Towhey tried to help him is less convincing. In fairness, there is also very little evidence to suggest Ford would or could accept that help.
Where Towhey gives us a behind-the-curtain perspective on well-known events, John Filion—a long-serving member of Toronto City Council—attempts to fill in much of the backstory of Ford. Filion, who worked as a journalist prior to his political career, reaches out to Ford family members and past acquaintances to garner an understanding of the enigma that is Rob Ford. It is a worthwhile endeavour. Ford’s portrayal in the media, within City Hall and among both “Ford Nation” and the so-called downtown elites more often than not cascades to the one dimensional, even cartoonish. Filion reminds us that between the polarized images of the flawed but heroic tribune of the people and the drunken drug-addled oaf manipulated by criminals and shady ne’er-do-wells, there is a real person woefully ill prepared for the demands of his job.
Filion starts with a story of an uncomfortable, friendless ten-year-old kid his mum invites over for dinner during Filion’s elementary school days. Was Rob Ford as a kid similar to this hapless boy? Filion thinks so. He wades through Ford family history and reports what he has been told by past (mostly estranged) friends, former colleagues of Ford patriarch Doug Sr. and more recent players in the political rise and fall of the Fords (again the interchangeable plural is much in use) including former Toronto police chief now MPP Bill Blair and Conservative political operative Nick Kouvalis, manager of the successful Ford 2010 mayoralty campaign. Many refuse to speak with Filion—particularly members of the Ford family itself. Some tell Filion that Doug Ford has told them not to speak. Doug Ford himself initially refuses to speak to him, although in typical Doug Ford style he ends up talking to Filion four times.
From these interviews, Filion provides a picture of the Ford family’s belief in its own destiny summed up with an oft-repeated Ford biblical paraphrase, carved even on Doug Sr.’s tombstone: “Many are called, few are chosen.” This single-minded belief that any means justify the ends goes a long way in explaining how Ford survived events and actions that would have ended any other political career. Is Ford like the ten-year-old looking for friends or the angry drunken lout who threatens and attacks anyone who challenges his world view? Early on, Filion agrees with addiction expert Gabor Maté that the authentic Rob Ford is similar to the young boy craving attention. Filion’s mission is to explain how this reconciles with the Ford witnessed in the public eye, and he executes much of it as the unseen reporter in Citizen Kane gathering different versions and perspectives on Ford’s family, career and the seemingly endless stream of publicized events and revelations.
For the most part Filion achieves his goal. Still, there are a few incongruities. He tries to be the dispassionate reporter and succeeds in drawing information out of the interviewees he gains access to, but he is also part of the story itself. He uses his interactions with Ford and his own actions on city council (preparing the motion that reduced Ford to a mostly ceremonial role in the administration, for example) to further his thesis. So the line between observer and participant becomes blurred as the book shifts back and forth from analysis to a recounting of events and personal memories.
Despite the occasionally jarring changing of the narrative perspective, Filion’s position on council and his personal relationship with Ford permit him to share with us the view from the floor with an authenticity usually masked by quick sound bites and edited scrums designed to spin or advance individual political agendas. In Toronto’s municipal system there are no political parties or formal blocs. The mayor is but one of 45 votes on council. By mid 2013 most members were in a deep quandary over a seemingly impossible governance situation. Filion, deservedly, takes credit for coming up with one of the few solutions available to the council. It is also a credit to Filion’s skills as a writer, perhaps a tad rusty after 30 years in politics, that despite the multiple shifts between actor and observer he avoids in his work the trap of self-justification and aggrandizement that Towhey falls into.
There is one common element in both books worth noting—the role of Rob Ford’s older brother and self-appointed family patriarch Doug Ford. Both Towhey and Filion portray Doug as nothing but a destructive influence on the younger Ford, whether as a disruptive enabler in their youth or on council in Filion’s work or as a power-grabbing, meddling usurper in Towhey’s book. Filion at least acknowledges what appears to be Doug Ford’s disappointment and concern for his brother when the drug consumption videos prove unquestionably real and when Rob Ford’s cancer is diagnosed (although at one point he refers to Doug as “King of the Crocodiles”). Towhey’s deep-seated, and apparently mutual, loathing of the elder Ford comes through his book in many vitriol-laden passages.
At the end of The Only Average Guy, Filion gives us a view from the one person who we never really hear from in either book, Rob Ford himself. In an example of a council meeting in the spring of 2015 when he was harshly criticized for missing a vote while attending a funeral and subsequently a hockey game with his seven-year-old son, we hear of Councillor Ford’s shock at how his children are told at school his dad will soon be eaten by worms. Filion tells Ford at one point that people hate him too for his role on council. Ford replies “No. They dislike you John. They hate me. I don’t know why.” This is the most poignant part of the Filion’s book. The man-child resembling a ten-year-old boy who cannot understand why his only friend’s mum will not invite him to dinner any more.
Where Towhey’s book smacks of score settling under the guise of setting the record straight and justification for his own actions in unpredictable, perilous circumstances under extreme public scrutiny, Filion uses his book to remind us, as is too often forgotten when discussing public figures and the unforgiveable sins we accuse them of committing, that for all the madness, infuriating obfuscation and dishonesty, whirlwind of inconceivable events and characters, allegations, accusations and paranoid hyperbole in the Ford story, at the centre of it all was a human being. A needy ten-year-old boy and deeply flawed adult perhaps, but still someone facing possible death trying to be a good dad. If this is what Filion wants us to take away from his book, he succeeds.
No one yet knows how the Ford (or Fords’) story will end, but in The Only Average Guy Filion prepares us for the next chapter.