Tufts Now Feature: The Baby-faced Hit Man
Who knows what evil lurks in the halls of government? Michael Dobbs does.
Dobbs, F73, F75, F77, wrote the novel House of Cards, which is now a popular Netflix series about corruption in American politics. In it, he dares us to explore the outer limits of human ambition and immorality.
“So much of drama comes from the dark side, and there is a lot of dark side in politics,” says Dobbs. “It’s like Shakespeare—he concentrates on the dark side because that’s where you find what makes us what we are.”
There’s plenty of wickedness in House of Cards. U.S. Rep. Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), seek power and revenge for a perceived betrayal after Frank is passed over for secretary of state. It is a modern-day Macbeth, with murder and blackmail almost incidental to the slander, lies and deception.
Dobbs knows a thing or two about political gamesmanship. Beginning in 1977, he was an advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and by 1986, he was Conservative Party chief of staff heading into Thatcher’s third-term election as prime minister. Dobbs was often called the “baby-faced hit man” for his role as a party enforcer.
But he fell victim to ambitious rivalry within the party. “During the course of the campaign, Margaret came to believe that I was plotting against her. Totally untrue—absolutely untrue,” Dobbs says. “What was happening was that people were plotting against me and my boss, the chairman of the party,” he says, shaking his head. “They spread rumors, and dare I say they played the game of rumor mongering far better than we did. We didn’t bother to do it; we just got on with the job.”
Even though Thatcher won her third term by a record margin, Dobbs saw the writing on the wall. “My relationship with Margaret became absolutely fractured. There was one meeting just a few days before the election when she exploded—became hysterical.” Dobbs says the confrontation left him “very badly bruised and left various other people at the meeting utterly appalled.”
He went home and took a legal pad, pen and bottle of wine down to his swimming pool. On the pad he wrote the first words of House of Cards: the letters “F.U.”
And so began the creation of one of politics’ most vile and immoral fictional characters. In the original 1989 novel, set in the British Parliament, he is Francis Urquhart, wending a dark path to become prime minister. Dobbs kept Urquhart and the story alive with two more books in the series, To Play the King and The Final Cut. The BBC adapted the trilogy into a highly acclaimed mini-series that aired in the early 1990s.
The critically acclaimed American version transformed Francis Urquhart into U.S. Rep. Francis “Frank” Underwood, D-S.C., who stomps souls and will stop at nothing to capture the Oval Office. Season two was released earlier this year, and season three is already in production.
“So I owe all the fame and success I’ve had for the last 25-odd years to being beaten up by Margaret Thatcher,” says Dobbs. “She was still the greatest peacetime prime minister our country had in the last century. But as I say, greatness is never comfortable.”
Just how real are the unnerving maneuvers and conscienceless characters in House of Cards? By way of answering, Dobbs mentions a recent news item about the Italian prime minister buying a couple of copies of House of Cards. Dobbs felt compelled to post a comment on Twitter: “I said that I hope he realizes this is a book of entertainment, not a book of instruction.”
Dobbs acknowledges he’s witnessed a great deal of the less savory side of politics. “I’ve seen quite a lot of it—maybe I’ve been part of it,” he demurs, noting that quite a bit of the 1987 Thatcher election campaign is in House of Cards.
“I’ve never done anything that I’ve been ashamed of, but I’ve been through some difficult times,” he says. He did fire friends who worked in the Thatcher administration, “because politics is not a holiday camp—it’s a machine for getting things done.”
Frank Underwood would certainly understand this Darwinian view of politics. “It’s not a place for choir boys or angels or people who simply want to be loved,” Dobbs says. “It’s where people have to make the really difficult, unpleasant, unpalatable decisions when sometimes the option isn’t between good and bad, it’s between what type of bad have I got to choose.”
The Fletcher Years
Leaving England for the Fletcher School, where he earned an M.A., an M.A.L.D. and a Ph.D. in nuclear defense studies, was a strategic choice, Dobbs says. He wanted to be near a woman he had fallen in love with who was living in New York.
“Those were some of the most important years of my life,” says Dobbs, who received a P.T. Barnum Award for Excellence in Entertainment from Tufts this year. “Not only did I take away huge friendships that still exist to this day, as an Englishman who had barely ever been abroad, it opened my eyes to what the world was like.”
He ticks off the positions his fellow students ended up in: “prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors, leaders of great institutions, academics, lawyers. That helped me deal with Margaret Thatcher, because to understand these great figures, you have to understand who they are in private.”
He got a political education outside the classroom as well, working as a political feature writer for the Boston Globe from 1971 to 1975 and watching the Watergate saga unfold. “You want dark side?” he asks. “Richard Nixon came very close to being the greatest president this country ever had, and he destroyed himself. You couldn’t make this up. Nobody would believe it.”
After graduating from Fletcher, Dobbs worked for Thatcher and the Conservative Party. He then moved into public relations and advertising, working for Saatchi & Saatchi from 1983 to 1991, with the interregnum in the Thatcher administration in 1986–87. Returning to the ad world, Dobbs served as Maurice Saatchi’s deputy chairman in New York. His writing career started to take off as the 1990s began.
Still bitten by the political bug, he served as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in Prime Minister John Major’s government from 1994 to 1995, but writing remained his passion. He penned a series of novels about political intrigue featuring an unlikely hero, Tom Goodfellowe, a backbench member of Parliament, and then wrote four historical novels in which he mined the motivation Winston Churchill.
Great Politicians and Breaking Things
“The more you analyze Churchill, the more he is not this two-dimensional hero who got everything absolutely right,” Dobbs says. “He was a three-dimensional man who got loads of things wrong, who was not always very nice or polite or patient, but who did the most extraordinary things. In my opinion he was the greatest English prime minister ever.”
The great politicians have the ability to change things, Dobbs says, and change means disruption. “It means breaking things and putting them back together in another order. All the greatest politicians I know have been uncomfortable people to be with—not nice and warm and gentle people. That, I think, is the secret of leadership—you are not going to get ordinary men and women to take it up and make a success of it. You have to be extraordinary, driven, obsessed,” he says.
Dobbs followed the Churchill novels with six thrillers starring Harry Jones, an ex–Special Air Service MP. The inspiration for the series came in the form of two small doors right behind where Queen Elizabeth sits in the House of Lords. Dobbs was shocked to learn that they were not escape hatches or communications centers, just janitorial closets.
“I said, ‘Someday, I will write a book about it.’ So I wrote about holding the head of state hostage, and developed the character Harry Jones, who is the antagonist,” Dobbs says. It’s part of a larger pattern. “All my ideas for books are just by accident. That’s my life—I never had a plan at all.”
For the past four years, Dobbs has had another sideline, so to speak. He was appointed life peer in the House of Lords—meaning his title cannot be passed down as it would if he were a hereditary peer—and accorded the title Lord Dobbs of Wylye.
“They asked me back to the House of Lords because I’m a writer and had been a cheerleader of the conservative cause for decades,” he says. “They thought I would come and support the government faithfully. So in my first week there, I voted against the government and defeated, by one vote—my vote—a very important piece of legislation to change the electoral system. The beauty of it is now they don’t take me for granted.”
Read the original piece
--Reprinted from Tufts Now