Ford & Obama: A Tale of Two Train Wrecks

Written by Wes Walker on November 15, 2013

They were the best of leaders, they were the worst of leaders — well, sort of.

In the eyes of their most ardent supporters and fans, Ford and Obama (each in their own way) rode in as rebels pledging to stand against an establishment sorely in need of change.

Obama was the fresh-faced, smooth-talking young lad with an interest in grass-roots movements — (and did you notice he’s black?) — that managed to unseat even the Clinton Juggernaut on his way to the Oval office.  He was “dreamy”:  the model from the cover of GQ, with [cue someone swooning] muscular Abs!  … could that have been Chris Matthews swooning?

Rob Ford, on the other hand was an outsider of another sort.  Sure, his family had the wealth that could have put him among the elites, but he wasn’t the hoity-toity type.  He went to school with the regular Joe, lives football and drinks beer.  He’s a plain-talking, union-busting, foul-mouthed, ornery S-O-B who descended upon Toronto with a plan to clean house and take names.  He showed up in a city that conservatives would describe as “somewhere left of Lenin” and actually began to run the city like a business.  Not only will he not back down from a fight, he actually takes pleasure in it. Maybe this is the reason some conservatives haven’t thrown Ford under the bus quite yet. (But that number is dwindling.)

To their critics, however, they were quite another story.

Obama’s train wreck has been mainly about his role as leader.  Let me be clear, his failures could number among the sand on the seashore.  They include his remarkable ability to choose the wrong policy on virtually every issue, foreign and domestic, his puerile response to any criticism, his disdain of any constitutional limitations of his own power, and his willingness to use institutions that are to serve and protect American Citizens as a cudgel to beat his political rivals. And so on.  That said, for all his policy and leadership failures, if he’s had any personal meltdowns of the sort Ford has been dealing with, (apart from what his supporters might generously describe as “youthful indiscretions”) they’ve been well out of the public notice.

Ford did not share Obama’s policy failures.  In fact, if his personal life were not in shambles, Ford’s role as mayor might be considered successful.  His goal of reining in runaway spending was accomplished.  His pledge of ending the gravy train was a goal he was bringing to pass.

Sadly, however, Ford’s personal life IS in shambles.  The destructive tendencies that exploded outward into a miserable public life for Obama turned inward in Ford’s case.  They gave us the sorts of salacious gossip-fodder that makes the late-night monologue-writer’s jobs embarrassingly easy.

What about the company they kept — to the extent that they were known?  Someone must have known about Ford’s more — ah — unsavory acquaintances well before the infamous “crackpipe” incident.  Had they been public knowledge, perhaps sunlight may have been the best disinfectant, and he’d have made better choices. Or not.  We’ll never know.  

In Obama’s case, however, his less savoury acquaintances were well established.  His associates might make a plausible cast of second-tier villains from the campy Adam West Batman series: Ayers, Wright, Rezko and a gaggle of hard-left radicals.  

Something about both men’s judgement and values could have been gleaned from considering the company they kept.

And what happened when their failures became publicly criticized?  Both men found a plausible story as a scapegoat, and took it too far.  Obama’s scapegoat was Bush.  Ford’s was the hostile media.  They followed that up by attacking their critics.

For example, did Bush actually make a mess of things?  You bet.  Dubya’s fingerprints were all over some of the problems we see today.  But when Obama had an opportunity to reverse bad policies, he chose instead to double-down and make things much, much worse.

With Ford, what more can be said?  Most of the Toronto media really did hate him from day one.  (Is it still paranoia if someone does have it in for you?)  But when the stories they’re telling are true, that martyr act is a tough sell.

There is a takeaway lesson for people taking on a position of power.  There’s another one for the rest of us.

For people finding themselves in a position of authority, mind well Lord Acton’s warning about power corrupting.  The ancient Greeks had a word worth bringing back — “hubris” — which described the dangers of power going to your head and letting you think you are a law unto yourself.  This trait is common to both men.  Ford for thinking the public should wink at criminal and reckless behaviour; Obama for treating the levers of political power as his personal sandbox.

For the rest of us, when we judge the value of someone in whom we’ve invested public trust, do we come down hard on “their guy’s” failings but give “our guy” a pass?  Are we guilty of blind allegiance based on party lines? Are we too quick to dismiss criticism from the “other team” as worthless?  We live in a partisan world, true enough.  But the line from partisan to “groupthink” is a thin one.

One closing thought.  If either of these men had a close friend in their inner circle who wasn’t afraid of the consequences of honesty, someone to say the Emperor has no clothes, what different ending might either one of these stories have found?

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