The strange and terrible saga of the crack-smoking, prostitute-frequenting, staffer-pussy eating, gangsta-befriending mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, is almost too bizarre to believe. Not only that such a man be elected mayor of a city not generally known for its love of Dionysian excess, but that his approval ratings reportedly go up with each new revelation, each new confession, as if the Canadians are daring us to see how far they will go in the toleration of political dysfunction.
Australian politicians by comparison are mere amateurs. Sure, they might occasionally use a union credit card to pay for “hostesses”, or squeeze their spouses onto a business class trip to far north Queensland at the taxpayers’ expense. Not a problem, when considered next to the exploits of Mayor Ford.
Big Rob reminds me of Stephen Purcell, who was leader of the Glasgow City Council in the late 2000s. A young, dynamic figure on the more progressive wing of the Labour party, Stephen was seen as a positive influence on Glasgow – my home town, in case you’re wondering. He was widely admired for an innovative approach to tackling the city’s long-standing problems of social deprivation , street violence, substance abuse and sectarianism (to name but four of the things Glasgow tops the international league tables for).
Purcell was different from the old Labour lags who ran things before him, a refreshing antidote to “the faceless men” of the male Left – yes, Scotland has them too.
But then, and completely out of the blue, Purcell was recorded snorting cocaine in a downmarket Glasgow pub, one of those places where you don’t want to enter with the wrong colour of football shirt. Scandalous! And it got worse. More drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual shenanigans – the details don’t matter. And then, there were suggestions of political corruption when it emerged that Purcell might have favoured certain contractors over others in the lucrative council housing market. That, more than anything, was what did for him.
All of this played out in the media, just like the travails of Mayor Ford, though Purcell’s coverage remained largely local. Poor Rob Ford has now become a global emblem of out-of-control hedonistic excess while in charge of a 4.5 million strong city. In both cases, private flaws have become very public, and hugely entertaining.
And here, maybe, is the key to understanding how it could be that the “good burghers” of Toronto, or Glasgow, might tolerate and even enjoy the media spectacle of their chief executive consuming class A drugs with some of the city’s most scary criminals. It’s such a refreshing change from the usual political spin.
Our politicians – most of them, anyway – are obsessive about looking good in the media, and projecting a positive public image. It is generally assumed that this is important to success in the modern media environment. As a result, politicians airbrush out of their public personae all the rough edges, all the evidence of their flawed humanity, their imperfectness. Their schedules and speeches and choice of clothing are all managed to the point where we become, simply, bored by it all.
How invigorating, then, to encounter a figure like Rob Ford, who knows what he likes and goes all out to get it. And by the way, he does not give a f**k what the media or his voters think about it. It ain’t politically correct, and I’m not defending his choice of poison – merely observing that in a world of bland, hyper-managed political communication, a wild card like Ford is a breath of fresh air.
Of course, it’s unsustainable. Mayor Ford is dangerous, literally, and will soon be in prison, or dead, or in rehab. Back in Glasgow, Stephen Purcell (after rehab) had to resign, and thus avoided jail time for his sins.
They are a novelty, these political mavericks, an entertainment of sorts, but in the end they have to give way to ‘serious’ politicians who, if they take drugs and bribes and have inappropriate sex with strangers, at least have the good judgment to do so in the privacy of their hotel rooms.
Meantime, though, let’s enjoy the spectacle. Who ever said the Canadians were boring?