He came from the middle of Etobicoke, a wildly diverse part of Toronto, far from downtown, where well-to-do neighborhoods like his family’s meet with towering developments, home to booming communities of newcomers. Drugs were always a presence, including in the house where he grew up: His older brothers were reported to have been involved in the drug trade. Over a decade as a city councillor, he pursued a narrow, simple vision of his job, returning every call, tooling around in a beat-up minivan, talking to homeowners and apartment dwellers about their neighborhood concerns. His chief concern was not spending taxpayer money (especially not on things such as bike lanes, AIDS research, and watering plants at city hall that should probably be plastic, though exceptions could be made for things like police helicopters). His legislative record was obstruction and outbursts, but that suited people fine. Shy and awkward in person, he was comfortable on the phone and became a fixture on AM radio. The legend of Rob Ford, champion of the little guy — and, as some have argued, it really was a legend — grew.
...The private life that emerged from recordings and reports was full of an almost puerile racism and misogyny. He seemed to have enjoyed listing off racial epithets to his friends. In public, he had a penchant for backhanded racism, the kind that sounds like a compliment but in practice was corrosively condescending. He poured his time (and some of the city’s, too) into coaching students from a high school football team, many of whom were black. He persisted in describing them as fatherless kids who would have fallen into drugs and gangs were it not for him. He seemed, above all else, childlike, a teenager from the early ’80s transported into the mayoralty as if by body-swap. His friends were petty criminals. His home was a place of verbal and emotional abuse, at a minimum. He called his aides in the middle of the night, crying, from his father’s grave.
...This is what I believe about Rob Ford: He believed in public service. He only knew how to do it one way: returning calls, knocking on doors, haranguing low-level bureaucrats for quick fixes. He was never cut out to be a mayor. It is not enough to simply make some of your constituents feel better. He did not actually ameliorate these lives with the power a mayor has. But the impulse to do well by the little guy is genuinely what drove him, and was one of the things that put purpose into a terribly difficult life.
This is worth considering, in a season where Rob Ford is being widely compared to Donald Trump. For all the similarities between the movements both men inspired, Trump’s presidential campaign is driven by a deep cynicism and a willingness to strategically deploy hatred in any way that will benefit him, without bounds of shame or conscience. That was not Rob Ford. If Rob Ford had no shame, then he would not have lied. He was shameless about his lies, but his lies sprang from shame. It is hard to look in the mirror and say I don’t understand that.