The ongoing saga surrounding Toronto’s scandal-saturated mayor, Rob Ford, epitomizes the term “sensational.” The story has virtually everything: illegal drugs, gangsters, political infighting, a whiff of sex, and a hubristic, outsized, fascinatingly flawed leading man. Ford’s improbable rise from a brash, loud-mouthed city councillor to mayor of North America’s fourth-largest metropolis, and his subsequent descent into a maelstrom of allegations involving alcohol and drug abuse, domestic discord, and (at the very least) inappropriately close relationships with known drug dealers and gang members, reads like something co-written by David Mamet and Elmore Leonard.
One of the people most responsible for bringing this story onto the world stage, Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, has been at the centre of the maelstrom since the night, in early May 2013, that she and her colleague, Kevin Donovan, viewed a now-infamous cellphone video that showed Mayor Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine. Doolittle’s new book traces her close involvement in the kind of story most reporters can only dream of covering.
Crazy Town is divided into roughly two parts. The first half traces the rise of Rob Ford from a suburban Etobicoke councillor who frequently found himself in hot water for his showboating behaviour and ill-considered comments to the mayor’s chair. To her credit, Doolittle is even-handed in her assessment of Ford’s strengths and weaknesses, writing that he “might be a genius” in his ability to pick political battles that play to his right-wing, suburban base.
The second half of the book is a whirlwind tour through the discovery of the crack video and its fallout. It’s all here: the server who alleged witnessing Ford doing lines at a downtown restaurant, the apparently intoxicated mayor’s appearance at the black-tie Garrison Ball in 2013, the furious denials followed by the serial apologies, the police wiretaps and videos tracing the association between Ford and Alexander “Sandro” Lisi, an alleged drug dealer who served as the mayor’s occasional driver.
Readers who have been following the Ford fiasco won’t find any bombshell revelations in Crazy Town; to a certain extent, Doolittle has been scooped by the fast pace of unfolding events. Indeed, the lawsuit filed last week by Scott MacIntyre, the former common-law spouse of Ford’s sister, alleging that the mayor may have had knowledge of a brutal jailhouse beating, rendered parts of the book incomplete even before it hit store shelves on Monday.
In her acknowledgements, Doolittle states she “had three months to write [the] book, start to finish, including research,” and, in places, it shows. Doolittle seems uncomfortable dramatizing scenes she was not present for, resorting to mawkishness (a wounded teenager survived the 2012 Eaton Centre food-court shooting following “several harrowing surgeries”) or cliché (“The gunshots came out of nowhere,” she writes of the Anthony Smith murder). Nor does the book engage in a serious examination of the culture of celebrity that has allowed Rob Ford to survive and, to some extent, flourish.
What is valuable is Doolittle’s extrapolation of the way the story came together at the Star. Ironically, given the speed at which the book was churned out, this narrative forms a testament to the virtues of old-school journalism, predicated upon principles such as fact-checking, editorial oversight, and use of reliable sources. Doolittle and Donovan appear as latter-day Woodward and Bernsteins, doggedly chasing malfeasance where it leads, even in the face of heated criticism and resistance. The moment at which newsroom staff gather around a television to watch police chief Bill Blair announce that the cops have recovered the crack video is one of pure catharsis – a fitting climax to this book, if not the unfinished story it tells.