WASHINGTON – On a busy news day marked by terrorist carnage in Belgium, and a historic speech by the U.S. president in Cuba, the New York Times and Associated Press sent out yet another news alert to smartphones of subscribers around the world: The former mayor of Toronto had died.
Neither in life, nor in death, was Rob Ford your average mayor.
The roller-coaster character of Ford’s mayorship was reflected Tuesday in news stories reacting to his death, which invariably mentioned crack cocaine and other incidents far more than anything about his budget-tightening policies at city hall.
Media and smartphone apps around the world received a dispatch from the Associated Press that began: “Rob Ford, the pugnacious, populist former mayor of Toronto whose career crashed in a drug-driven, obscenity-laced debacle, died Tuesday after fighting cancer, his family said. He was 46.”
Ford attained a level of international celebrity uncommon for any Canadian politician — let alone a municipal one.
In fact, in 2013, a media-monitoring agency declared that his struggles with substance abuse had received more global media attention than any Canadian news story of this young century, and had someone wanted to buy up all that media space it would have cost more than $1 billion.
Of course, not all this attention was wanted.
An obituary halfway down the New York Times home page began similarly: “The combative former mayor of Toronto who gained international notoriety with his confession of crack cocaine use, his public drunkenness and his belligerent clashes with other public officials, died on Tuesday. He was 46.”
One of the several American comedians who’d spent part of 2013 teasing Ford, before hosting him on his late-night show, tweeted a thoughtful message.
“Condolences to the family and fans of @TorontoRobFord — an unforgettable guy who loved his job and city like few men I’ve met,” Jimmy Kimmel posted on Twitter.
A National Public Radio headline referred to him as, “Toronto’s Infamous Former Mayor.” The online piece by NPR began: “Rob Ford, the former Toronto mayor whose drug-addled fall from grace made international news, has died.”
The BBC avoided any drug references in its headline or lead sentence. Its online item did make a socio-political observation: “His image contrasted sharply with Canada’s usual calm, buttoned-up politics.”
One U.S. magazine had a Canadian weigh in.
Torontonian Stephen Marche wrote in Esquire that Ford was many things — an international buffoon, a symbol of toxic masculinity, and the inventor of a new and virulent style of politics composed of equal parts comedy, rage and celebrity culture.
He compared the phenomenon to Donald Trump.
“The true legacy of Rob Ford is that he identified a bizarre longing in the populations of rich cities with dysfunctional governments, and that longing is much more evident in the United States than in Canada right now,” said his Esquire item.
“Rob Ford, like many other discoverers, stumbled on his discovery. But other, more self-aware, more skilled, politicians were watching. Other politicians — ones with more cynical hearts and fewer self-destructive addictions — were learning. And so here we are in 2016 when the most salient political fact in the world is that the next Rob Ford could easily be the next President of the United States.”