Thoughts on Rob Ford (vol. 1)

Like many, many people in Toronto, I woke up this morning trying not to think about our mayor, Rob Ford. I couldn’t bring myself to watch him on Jimmy Kimmel late night (the pathos is too much for me). But then I noticed that Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was giving a talk on campus at noon, so I surrendered — might was well make it an all-Ford, all-the-time sort of day. So I took a look at the Kimmel appearance, and now, what do you know, I’m writing about Rob Ford.

As far as the late-night appearance is concerned, people paid a lot of attention to the fact that Kimmel was “mean” to Ford, or that he had “ridiculed” him, or that it was “embarrassing” for the city. I actually thought it made us (i.e. people living in Toronto) look marginally less insane. Here’s why. My guess is that any political strategist watching that appearance could see exactly why Ford is a successful retail politician. Ford takes the concept of “message discipline” to a whole new level. He sits down next to Jimmy and the first thing out of his mouth is the basic Ford schtick (which those of us living in the city have heard literally a thousand times): “I’m the guy who saves you money, I’m the guy with respect for the taxpayer, I’m the guy who returns your phone calls, all those other fancy double-talkers are the enemy of you, the man on the street.” Once he’s got that out, everything else — and I mean everything else — is like water off a duck’s back.

If anything, what Ford reveals is the brutal effectiveness of message discipline. He proves that you can do pretty much everything else wrong (and it’s difficult to imagine how much more Ford could do wrong), and still win if you are able to be sufficiently relentless in your messaging. (This discovery is, I think, a catastrophe for democracy, but more on that some other time.)

Here’s the thing about message discipline — it’s incredibly hard to do, and it’s much harder for smart people to do than for dumb people. Politicians get sent into the scrum with a set of talking points, with communications advisors having beaten into them the importance of saying nothing that strays beyond them. And the politicians know that if they deviate from the script, they will get yelled at by that same advisor when the cameras are off. Yet so many just can’t help themselves.

There is a nice story to illustrate this in Paul Wells’s recent book on Stephen Harper. Harper, of course, has greater discipline than almost any Canadian politician working today. Nevertheless, his staff noticed that, after three or four questions, he often started to loosen up, and would sometimes say what he really thought about some question. That was when he got himself in trouble. So having noticed this pattern, they decided that Harper would no longer take more than three questions in any session with journalists — because beyond that his discipline started to wear off, and he began to engage, intellectually, with the questions.

Ford, of course, doesn’t have the problem of being tempted to engage intellectually with the questions. This is an area where being dumb, but having good populist instincts, can really pay off.

But back to Kimmel for a moment. Suppose you were a communications advisor to a politician who was having trouble saying “on message.” Say you had someone like Michael Ignatieff on your hands, who has all sorts of ‘interesting’ and ‘profound’ views on various questions, which he really wants to share with reporters. So you want to put him through something like “message discipline” boot camp. You want to put him in a situation where he will be distracted, provoked, embarrassed, humiliated, in front of lots of people, just to see how much he can take and still stay on message. What better forum could you hope for, than a late-night talk show?

At this point someone would no doubt object: “what you’re asking is too difficult… no politician can survive in that kind of environment… this is cruel and unusual.” To which I say, “ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. Rob Ford!”

What I saw on Kimmel was a man with an almost superhuman capacity to stay on message, and to ignore everything else. And here’s the thing that I think most intellectuals (myself included) have the greatest difficulty accepting — that a lot of people, and I mean a lot of people, probably watched that and said to themselves “yeah, I’d vote for that guy.”

I don’t think many of us have even starting getting our heads around the full implications of this. They are, for the most part, very depressing. I’ll talk about that at a later time.

To end on a happier note, here’s a picture of Robyn Doolittle eating a cookie. The fact that people like her go into journalism, and that there are still some newspapers with the resources to employ them, is encouraging (at least for now):


She had quite a few interesting things to say. In particular, she talked about the perception that Ford is “dumb,” which she rejected. I actually think there’s a lot of confusion on this question, some of it revolving around what we mean by “dumb.” So next time I have a Rob Ford day, I want to talk a bit about what we mean by “dumb” (which, by the way, Rob Ford most assuredly is).




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