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Making Sense of Rob Ford's Troubled Life

He was the crack-smoking mayor the world laughed at. He had a family. He was a drunk who said awful things. He was a guy who got sober and then got cancer.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses media at City Hall in Toronto on November 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Rob Ford is dead.

Having covered Ford for years, these are words I've long expected to write, and you, if you know anything about the man, have long expected to read.

The one-term mayor of Toronto died Tuesday at the age of 46, less than two years after getting sober and not long after that learning he had a rare form of cancer.

"With heavy hearts and profound sadness, the Ford family announces the passing of their beloved son, brother, husband, and father, Rob Ford," a statement from the Ford family said.


"A dedicated man of the people, Councillor Ford spent his life serving the citizens of Toronto."

Ford's death is a complicated one to process. He was a man with a young family. He was a hand-shaking, back-patting politician hiding a very ugly dark side. At the height of his global infamy, he was our human meme.

Even with the ongoing spectacle that is the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the Rob Ford reality show (its top-rated season airing from spring 2013 until fall 2014) still feels like a shared fever dream for Toronto. For that year and half, it was a constant state of Did that just happen? And before you could answer that question, Ford had said or done some other ridiculous thing, whether it was publicly talking about eating out his wife, tackling a grandmother or photographer, or getting busted smoking crack on camera a second time.

Ask any Torontonian what he or she will remember about Ford, and you'll get a dozen different answers. Ask anyone outside of Toronto about how he or she will remember Ford, and you'll get one answer.

So, how do you sum up a life like Rob Ford's?

Was he the authentic man on the street that Ford Nation adored, a sympathetic figure who desperately craved respect from his hard-ass father and belittling big brother? Was he the drunken class clown who needed booze to feel at home at a party? Or was he a darker figure, a pathological liar and a nasty, racist drunk who was a lousy husband and father?


The simple answer is that he was all of the above.

As my colleague from VICE News, Natalie Alcoba, wrote: "Ford was always a survivor, always managed to stay in the political game through pure force of personality, although his wounds were nearly always self-inflicted."

But that was likely his biggest political accomplishment. In the coming days, friends and foes alike will go to great lengths to find kind words about his political career, but as a councillor, he was mostly a lonely voice against progress, and as mayor, his biggest accomplishments were getting garbage privatized on one side of the city, saving drivers $45 on vehicle registration and winning some concessions from the city's unions. While saving home and car owners a few bucks won him a legion of support in the suburbs, he did virtually the maximum amount of damage he could do to the city's most important file—transit. The closest thing he had to a tangible win on transit—federal money for the much-ridiculed Scarborough subway extension—has seen a radically changed plan, and the credit will land with a mayor not named Ford. History will not judge his one term kindly.

Photo via Flickr user Shaun Merritt

Ford's biggest legacy will likely be the birth of Ford Nation, his base of political super fans whose zealousness approached that of prog rock fans. It started early with his commitment to personally answering phone calls for fixing potholes and the throwing of backyard barbecues, and his support grew exponentially as he tapped into a deep well of suburban resentment, attacking any spending by City Hall as a waste of money by and for downtown elites.


By the time he became mayor in 2010 (a combination of a stunning amount of underestimation on how much people loved him and an awful campaign from the perceived frontrunner,) Ford Nation was a de facto political party in Toronto. Drugs and drinking scandals (though small by later scandals' standards) did absolutely nothing to dent Ford's campaign momentum, although they would have ended some politicians' aspirations right then and there. As his mayoralty was hit with both scandal and the complex reality of running the biggest city in Canada, he and his base would lash out at the media and the Establishment no matter what the facts.

You can't say that Trump looked north and saw a political road map to the Republican presidential nomination, but you can certainly say Rob Ford was first.

Ford leaves behind a wife and two children. Much of what the public knows of his family life is dark. The domestic disturbance calls, the time he purposely dragged his notoriously private wife through a crowd of media after he defended himself from sexual harassment claims, and the Christmas morning 911 call that claimed Ford was trying to take his children away to Florida against their mother's will. That's just what's in the public record, but what's not is that his kids are going to miss their dad.

In Councillor John Fillion's very sympathetic book about Ford, he painted the picture of a youngest son who felt unloved by his bullying father.


"I wondered about the childhood that had produced such a troubled adult," Fillion told the Toronto Star.

Photo via Flickr user West Annex News

Rob Ford's relationship with his brother Doug was equally complicated. Doug Ford publicly embarrassed his brother with a weight loss challenge, and there were always whispers about Doug and Rob's relationship, particularly that Doug—never the naturally likable politician Rob was—enabled his brother's bad behavior to further his own career.

Besides "saving the taxpayers money," the other love of Rob Ford's public life was football. And while he was an undeniably successful high school coach, he couldn't help but let his personal flaws ruin that part of his life too. After being let go as head coach at Don Bosco in 2013 (shortly after the crack video scandal broke), internal documents showed that he made his players roll in goose shit, he reneged on an offer to buy equipment, and he threatened to beat up a teacher. And while Ford was at least good enough to ride the bench for one year at Carleton University, this is the best known footage of him playing football.

So it went with Rob Ford, whose popularity was always due to a mix of genuine love and biting laughter.

Rob Ford's cancer announcement came only a few short months after he went to rehab and by all accounts sobered up. Doug ran in his place for mayor in 2014, finishing a respectable second to John Tory. Rob went back to his old seat in Etobicoke and easily won, despite his significant health setbacks.


While there were flashes of the old Rob Ford, the one who cast lone Fuck You votes against his colleagues, he was a shadow of his former self, although he promised to run again for mayor in 2018.

We never got a chance to see what a no-skeletons campaign from Ford would have looked like. Was he capable of change and reflection and could he turn that into a tale of personal salvation that might win him back respect and adoration? We'll never know.

In the coming days, we'll likely hear many people say he was in the process of turning his life around and was a new man. We all like a comeback story and don't like to speak ill of the dead.

But you look at facts of Rob Ford's career, and you see rampant sexism, racism, lying, and a guy who only apologized when he was cornered. You don't need to apologize if that's how you remember Rob Ford.

Follow Josh Visser on Twitter.