Memo to Bill Maher .. Rob Ford may seem to make a few good points .. but he’s no disciple of Lenny Bruce

Nov 26th, 2013 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Bill Maher.

In my advancing age “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO TV is one of the highlights of my Friday nights. I’m sad to think that this past Friday’s episode (November 22, 2013) will be the last until the new year.

For my money Bill Maher actually is a spiritual descendant of Lenny Bruce. And generally I thought his show this past Friday was even better than usual. His comparison of JFK as hip left-wing hero with Ronald Reagan as somnambulist right-wing hero – on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination – was close to nirvana for people like me.

No one is perfect, however. Like others who live in Toronto (no doubt), I felt that the most sensible thing Bill Maher said on his November 22 show about our suddenly stateside-famous Mayor Rob Ford was “I don’t know Toronto politics that well.”

Mr Maher opined, eg: “I love this guy Rob Ford because he sticks his fingers back in people’s faces and says, ‘What, you don’t do anything?’ When his brother said, ‘Who here in the council hasn’t done marijuana’ … crickets. Crickets.”

Yet the current Mayor of Toronto would be more worthy of our love here if, like Bill Maher, he was, eg, “an outspoken advocate for the legalization of marijuana.”

Before and even after his recent drug-use confessions Rob Ford has posed as a traditional right-wing advocate of “zero tolerance for drugs.” Even now, his ultimate response to criticism about his drug use (and his drinking) has been to promise on CBC TV that he has had “a Jesus moment,” and won’t do drugs or even drink legal alcoholic beverages ever again. (And if you really believe that, etc, etc …)

1. Getting the job done?

Mayor Ford and friend Don Cherry : enemies of left-wing kooks.

In responding to Katty Kay’s criticism of Rob Ford’s narcissism this past Friday night Bill Maher also urged : “I don’t know Toronto politics that well but his defence seemed to be, you know, ‘You elected me to be a penny-pincher and that’s what I do every day.’ I didn’t hear anybody say different … So it seems like he does get the job done.”

Here Bill Maher’s researchers need to do a bit more homework. They could start by consulting the recent reportage of David Sax at Bloomberg Business Week in the USA.

As Sax explains : “In 2010 Ford won election mostly on his campaign promise to “Stop The Gravy Train” of coddled bureaucrats, decadent city councilors, and municipal unions–all of whom, in Ford’s eyes, were draining the city of its lifeblood … But when Ford turned to the city budget in early 2011, with promises to root out the waste, his effectiveness waned.”

Sax goes on : “He commissioned a report from the consulting firm KPMG to identify efficiencies in the city’s spending, but the report found little sign of the massive waste Ford had declared war on. Toronto wasn’t mired in unsustainable debt (structural deficits are actually illegal), and the city’s credit rating had remained solid under [Ford’s ‘left-wing’ predecessor] Mayor Miller.”

2. “Which of Rob Ford’s latest claims are lies?”

From here, the “Real Time with Bill Maher” researchers might want to consult such key current local digital documents as “Reality check: Which of Rob Ford’s latest claims are lies?

Mayor Ford has claimed, eg, that under his watch Toronto has had the “lowest tax increase of any major North American city?” In fact :”Windsor, Ont. (population 210,891 as of 2011) has gone five years without a municipal tax increase, and could be going into their sixth. If you don’t consider Windsor, a ‘major’ city, San Antonio, Texas (population 1.383 million as of 2012) hasn’t had a property tax increase for 21 years.”

I could go on and on in this vein. There are so many other like-finned fish to fry. Maybe the biggest thing Bill Maher leaves out is that both Mayor Rob Ford and his city councillor brother Doug have a long history of lying like rugs. (And to an excessive degree, even allowing that, as the first modern political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli reminded us long ago, some degree of lying has always been part of the political arts and crafts.)

Take, eg, Greg McArthur’s piece in this past weekend’s Globe and Mail : “Assessing the financial affairs of ‘average guy’ Mayor Rob Ford.”

McArthur starts with : “During Rob Ford’s media blitz this week, in which he granted interviews to several major American broadcasters, there was one common refrain: he is a regular man under attack from the establishment. While touring a low-income apartment with CNN, he railed against “rich, elitist people” who look down on his consumption of drugs and alcohol. ‘I’m just an average guy,’ he told the network’s correspondent Bill Weir.”

McArthur goes on: “Anyone who has ever peered into the financial affairs of the mayor and his family would find his identifying with ‘poor people’ peculiar. His family’s many assets include the label and sticker business, Deco Labels and Tags Inc., co-founded by the mayor’s late father, as well as substantial residential and commercial real estate holdings. It is difficult to put an exact price tag on his family’s worth … But public records show that Mr. Ford and his family members are far better off than your average Canadian.”

3. What do the latest Rob Ford polls really mean??

Bill Maher did not allude directly to any polls about Rob Ford this past Friday. But such things have been haunting the airwaves lately as well. And they are too often reported on in ways that make the current Mayor of Toronto (already stripped of key powers etc)  look stronger than he really is. They arguably form a sub-text for Mr. Maher’s (and other) rose-coloured binoculars.

The website, eg, has told us that, according to “a recent study by Forum Research … Ford Nation seems to continue to stand behind their idol, regardless of his public antics, or admissions of breaking the law.” And the key evidence here is that “42% of Toronto voters approve of Ford … virtually unchanged from a similar Forum poll … two weeks ago.”

What did not also tell us (but the CTV News website did, to its credit) is that in “comparison to Ford’s 42% approval rating … 65% of Toronto voters approve of”Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly (to whom City Council has now given a number of the mayor’s powers), “59% approve of NDP MP Olivia Chow … 52% approve of former Ontario PC Leader John Tory … 47% approve of Toronto mayoral candidate and city councillor Karen Stintz,” and “36% approve of the mayor’s brother and city councillor Doug Ford.”

Another Forum Research poll released just yesterday focused on the more down-to-earth question of actual results in the next municipal election, just under a year from now. According to this survey : “NDP MP Olivia Chow will be the frontrunner in the race to become Toronto’s next mayor provided she puts her name on the ballot …In a four-way race with the declared candidates, Chow was the top choice with 39 per cent support compared to 34 per cent for incumbent Rob Ford, 17 per cent for TTC Chair Karen Stintz and 5 per cent for former budget chief David Soknacki.”

Olivia Chow.

Further wrinkles in this poll included : “When radio personality John Tory was added to the race, Chow won a close contest with 34 per cent of the vote compared to 31 per cent for Ford, 22 per cent for Tory, seven per cent for Stintz and four per cent for Soknacki … Chow also beat Ford and Tory by the same margin when Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong was added to the race … Meanwhile, if Chow doesn’t run the poll suggested that Rob Ford would be re-elected with 33 per cent of the vote compared to 27 per cent for Tory and 24 per cent for Stintz.”

Karen Stintz, however, would actually “beat Ford in a three-way race with Soknacki, claiming 40 per cent of the vote.” And the big takeway here (apart from the anti-Ford magic of Olivia Chow) is that “the more crowded the field the more it works to the mayor’s advantage.”

4. Rob Ford as a sign of a changing Toronto … and Bill Maher as just another left-wing kook (in the eyes of Rob Ford’s friend, Don Cherry)

Having said all this, I give Bill Maher credit for getting closer than many progressive (and conservative) pundits to a local truth alluded to almost a month ago now by my colleague Dominic Berry : “Like it or not, there is a real Ford nation. The mayor of Canada’s current biggest city speaks in a voice that more than a few of we-the-people who usually feel left out of public life identify with … In a city as resolutely multicultural as early 21st century Toronto, more than a few of those who identify with Mayor Ford are also non-anglo and non-white.”

A recent editorial in the Globe and Mail called “Rob Fordism, the idea … an ideology of resentment, bitterness and negativity.” But if you have any authentic passion for democracy and what Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982 calls the “free and democratic society,” I think you ought to have more respect and even admiration for at least certain strands of Rob Ford’s populism.

I also like the quotations from the Toronto novelist and Esquire columnist Stephen Marche, alluded to by my colleague Randall White a few weeks ago: “Mr. Ford … captures, better than anyone, the deep currents of outsider rage against the city’s institutions …  The values of the old elites also survive. It may be one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over half of its residents born in another country, but Toronto retains a strong legacy of the British Empire.” And in at least some ways Toronto “is the city of Rob Ford now, an expanding hot mess, fueled by dark secrets, inarticulate desires and inchoate fury. Overcoming nearly 200 years of sensible decisions and ingrained humility, Toronto is starting to get interesting.”

Yet even as we recognize all this, it seems to me at any rate, we should not also make the mistake of imagining the real Rob Ford as some kind of descendant of Lenny Bruce, like Bill Maher himself. When push comes to shove, Rob Ford is much more of a traditional bullying right-wing ideologue than any kind of free and democratic populist, standing up for the average guy.

To get to the bottom of this crucial local truth in Toronto politics, you have to go back to Mayor Ford’s “pomp-filled” inauguration ceremony in early December 2010, when famed hockey commentator Don Cherry gave his three-minute message of welcome, clad in “a pink-and-white silk jacket and patterned tie.” In case you’ve forgotten, here is a quick sample : “I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything …  I’m being ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers out there – it’s unbelievable. One guy called me a jerk in a pink suit so I thought I’d wear that for him too today … This is what you’ll be facing, Rob, with these left-wing pinkos – they scrape the bottom of the barrel … As far as I’m concerned you can put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.”

Don Cherry adjusts the chain of office on Mayor Rob Ford in City Hall Council Chambers during the swearing in ceremony in December 2010. TANNIS TOOHEY / TORONTO STAR.

Mr. Cherry has most recently confessed that he is somewhat “disappointed” by Mayor Ford’s latest 2013 antics. But he is apparently still urging : “Let’s give him a chance.” To conclude at last, I have no doubt that both Mr. Cherry and (in his more sincere moments) Mr. Ford would regard Bill Maher as just another pipe-wielding left-wing kook. (Regardless of how many times he has taken the strangely erotic Ann Coulter to dinner, or wherever else it is she likes to go!)

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