THERE HAVE BEEN SOME STRANGE ONES
It would be a mistake to think that Toronto has been blessed since 1834 with a wonderful array of 63 thoughtful and charismatic mayors who managed adroitly, unlike the 64th, Rob Ford, not to do or say the wrong thing every single time.
But there have been few worst disasters! He is now famous throughout North America as a slur on Canadian politics, but at least the reasonable observers know he is an awful exception.
He's like a bad cartoon. He resembles a stumblebum farmer running through a pasture managing to slosh in every single cow flap while pursued by an irate bull of public opinion. The remarkable thing is that he now has been mayor of Toronto longer than 31 of the mayors who served before him, and tied at three years with another 12, but hasn't learned a damn thing.
With him, it seems like an eternity, not just the three years from Oct. 25, 2010, when he got 47% of the vote.
Toronto has often had mayors who stood out in history, or were one of a kind, or despised by much of the city, or were quoted around the world, and not always approvingly.
Start with the first mayor, the firebrand known as William Lyon Mackenzie, appointed by his colleagues back when the mayor also acted as the city's chief magistrate. He never even served a year. A fiery publisher who was known for his evil temper in debate where he was prone to take off a remarkably ugly red wig and jump up and down on it while screaming.
He led the failed rebellion of Upper Canada in 1837 and only survived when John Powell, tried to shoot him at point blank range on the Yonge St. hill south of St. Clair. The pistol wouldn't fire, the only reason the fifth mayor of the city didn't kill the first. (And you thought things were tough now at city hall.)
Mackenie fled into exile in New York State but returned when friends bought him that house on Bond St. that my colleague at the Telegram around 1960, Andrew MacFarlane, proved was still haunted.
There is more spiritualism. His youngest daughter was born there, the mother of William Lyon Mackenzie King who believed in ghosts and long ruled Canada as prime minister through consultations with his mother and a series of Pats. There was a handicap because she and the dogs were dead.
The competition is tough but the 64th mayor seems wackier compared to the first. The interesting question, however, is whether that first mayor, and that grandson, would have survived any length of time at all under the grinding 24/7 media scrutiny that tore the scabs off Ford.
One reason our mayors didn't last is elections until recently were every one or two years. Campaigns were short and fierce, where winners often depended on support of one of the big three of the daily newspapers.
For example, Bert Wemp had been a much-decorated World War One flying ace, but when he tried for mayor, the competition was bitter. The Tely ran a huge picture of Major Wemp with a chest of medals on Page One, and said that this was the man whom his opponent had called a coward.
And you thought politicians were mean now.
Wemp served for one year in 1930 and then retired to run a court newsroom shared, in rare co-operation, by the Star and the Tely. Reporters made two copies of every story and sent them through pneumatic tubes for several blocks under Bay St. Few of the cubs knew that the stern quiet boss feeding those tubes had once presided on the dais just across the hall in the council chamber.
The first mayor to serve for seven years was Tommy Church. He did so from 1915 to 1921 because of the affection for the populist who went quietly to Union Station to welcome every returning veteran from the war to end all wars. It may have been a Star reporter named Ernest Hemingway who reported in lean prose about a funeral where Church was the only one there with the widow at the veteran's grave.
Few mayors surpassed a butcher named Thomas Foster, mayor from 1925 to 1927, in leaving colourful and controversial remembrances. There was the Foster will giving money to feed birds, plant trees and have a downtown picnic.There was the Foster baby derby where the will rewarded the Toronto mother having the most babies over 10 years. Many still visit his remarkable $250,000 family mausoleum which has caused many a passing motorist to wonder in amazement just how a grand creation in Taj Mahal style could end up in quiet Uxbridge.
It wasn't unusual for our mayors to be comfortably rich. (Remember that Ford and his brother are millionaires.) Ralph Day ran an east-end funeral home while he was mayor from 1938 to 1940, and later chairman of an independent TTC. When he won the Irish Sweeps, technically an illegal prize which was the 6/49 of its day, he used it to fix up the funeral parlours.
One of our most famous mayors, Allan Lamport, served only 2 1/2 years, which many find hard to believe. He quit in June, 1954, to run the TTC. A great man at a party, where he drank only champagne. He and some cronies had a hospitality suite, 1735, reserved for more than two years at the Royal York Hotel. The city was said at an inquiry that achieved nothing to have spent $40,000, then a fortune, and the hotel chain was alleged by reporters to have given a lot of freebies.
Afterwards, it was common for groups to rent the suite to discover, to their sorrow, that there was nothing special about it with the city's free booze gone. Nevertheless, rumours about riotous spending, and parties with ambidextrous blondes, swirled around Lampy and his crew for years.
They were a Toronto form of the Rat Pack and would often be seen together in restaurants like the old Lichee Gardens which then had the best steaks in town.
He didn't quite survive a judicial inquiry in the 1960s into his expenses as mayor and TTC chairman which featured, among other things, $5 sundaes in the days when dairies had all you could eat ice cream for a buck.
Two reporters and me spent a night inside the old city hall vault ploughing through mayoral receipts in an era, believe it or not, when municipal politics was just as rowdy as today's.
A few years later, Don Summerville was mayor for 10 months. He had been a goalie when his Kirkland Lake team won the Allan Cup in 1940. Mayors are supposed to be Maple Leaf fans but no mayor ever surpassed him because he went to every home game and played in a few Leaf practises. He played and worked hard despite his bad heart, He went to a party one night held regularly at the Prince George Hotel (he also had a posse) in a private room right under the noses of the Globe and Star. Even though he took some nitro, he left to play in a charity hockey game, and died from a heart attack in the first period.
He was so popular, he laid in state in the council chamber and thousands lined up to pay their respects. Something his colleagues are trying to do for Ford, without the state honours.
Summerville's term was completed by Phil Givens who was defeated later as mayor because voters thought he stuck them with a bill for $125,000 for the Archer statue by Henry Moore that sits in the square.
Givens was a bouncy shoot-from-the-lip alderman who was known to get into wrestling matches with Lampy and other colleagues when council broke for dinner every second Monday and some aldermen had more than the one drink paid for by the taxpayers. It didn't hurt Phil who went on to become an MP, MPP, police commission chairman and judge.
There was a return to fundamentalism after Lampy quit when Leslie Saunders was appointed by council to take over. He would never have survived the controversies over gay issues that have dogged Ford because as the world's top Orangeman, then still a powerful lodge in the city, the province and indeed the world, he disliked anyone who wasn't a devout Protestant.
After I wrote about this in a Sun column, he rose on a point of privilege at Metro council to attack me sitting up above in the press gallery. He pointed out indignantly that my father had been the family doctor and knew he was fair. He didn't say he was bothered that I had married a Catholic, but he was. He didn't much like Jews either, a fact known to Paul Godfrey, the Jewish Metro chairman, who managed to rule him out of order while not holding his nose.
Imagine that in 2013. I don't even know what religion Rob Ford is. But this is a city, despite the veneer of sophistication, where religion wasn't supposed to be important, yet every mayor from 1834 to 1955 was Protestant. When Nathan Phillips was elected in 1955, it made headlines across the country that Toronto had elected a Jew. The Mayor of All the People served for eight years, second only in service to Art Eggleton who was elected for 11 years starting in 1980.
What is noteworthy about this is that Eggs was the first Roman Catholic to be elected mayor, although just before him, Fred Beavis, nicknamed the honest roofer, served a few months to complete David Crombie's term. His name was pulled out of a used stationery box by city clerk Roy Henderson to break a 11-11 tie with Anne Johnston who would have been the first female mayor.
Eggs was perceived as a bland type but he had a romantic side which got him into trouble finally as a federal cabinet minister before he became a senator. But the city longed for peace after John Sewell who fought with just everyone and was such a critic of the police, often with reason, that he even kicked a cruiser one day after he alleged it cut him off while jogging. Sewell did things like chaining himself to fences at demonstrations and being thrown out of the gallery at Queen's Park.
Ford descended into a dungeon of public horror at his foul behaviour. But for all those saying there has never been anyone close to such a Toronto embarrassment, they should sift history. Remember Mel taking off to visit the Hell's Angels, being worried about ending up in a cannibal's pot, saying he didn't know what the heck the World Health Organizaation was, calling in the army to tackle a few snow drifts, even mining every crevice of his body to get enough curly hair to end his baldness.
All the good mayors have been stout leaders and word warriors, firm in their beliefs but always ready to consider a workable compromise. To think that it is possible to win such a position in one of the largest cities in North America while being popular with every last voter is an absurdity. You also have to have an incredible ego. But it also takes a monumental ineptitude to destroy the support of half the voters.
If you wrote about all this in a proposed novel, it would never make it into print out of the slush pile. The editors would say it could never happen. But it did. Reality politics run amuck in what used to be a staid city.
Unfortunately for Ford, although he managed to make it to a post which only a comparatively small group have held with honour, flash and occasional absurdity, he is destined to be remembered only as the low point in the list of mayors we've had for 179 years.
More proof that too many of us, in the words of the cliche, carry within ourselves the seeds of our destruction.