‘House of Cards’ creator Michael Dobbs talks Tufts, politics, inspirations

Lord Michael Dobbs, best selling author and an alumnus of Tufts University, visits the Medford campus on Thursday, October 19, 2017 and gives a talk at Ginn Library inside the Fletcher building about his Winston Churchill novels and best selling book, "House of Cards," which inspired the popular television series. (Courtesy Jake Belcher/Tufts University)

Michael Dobbs, author and executive producer of “House of Cards” (2013–), spoke at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life on Oct. 25. He graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1977 with an M.A., M.A.L.D. and Ph.D in nuclear defense studies.

At the event, Dobbs discussed his time at Tufts, his life in politics and the journey he took from deputy chairman at Saatchi & Saatchi to award-winning author of the “House of Cards” trilogy that led to television adaptations by the BBC and Netflix.

Dobbs shared his memories of the Tufts atmosphere during a turbulent time in U.S. history and his perspective on the current political climate. As a student at Tufts during the end of the Vietnam War, Dobbs knew a campus that, according to him, was strikingly different than the university that students today are familiar with. He recalled the intense and grave situations that students had to grapple with at the time, explaining that the National Guard troops were being deployed to university campuses and, in extreme instances, killing students at other schools in the midst of anti-war protests.

Noting the troubling political atmosphere the United States and the rest of world is currently facing, Dobbs claimed it is nothing we haven’t seen before. He touched upon the importance of learning from our mistakes, saying that democracy has adapted and moved on and will continue to do so.

Dobbs also shared stories of his time in politics as a member of the House of Lords and as chief of staff of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom. His interactions with Thatcher — whom he described as very confrontational — were greatly important to his future career path.

Dobbs informed the audience that a particularly hurtful exchange with Thatcher was actually the stimulus to start writing “House of Cards.” After hours of attempting to start writing his first novel, Dobbs said that the only two letters he managed to write were “FU,” an unsubtle indication of his feelings toward Thatcher at the time, he explained laughing.

Those two expressive letters later transformed into the initials of his main character, antihero Francis Urquhart (or Underwood, as known in the U.S. version). Dobbs drew upon his personal experiences in politics to form the plots and characters of his political thriller, notably his observations of what makes a great leader.

He discussed how leadership and power create an uncomfortable situation to be in and that great leaders are often uncomfortable people to be around. His personal experiences have caused Dobbs to believe that people of power have huge pressures put upon them and usually are driven by something they are haunted by in their personal lives. Dobbs made sure to clarify that Thatcher never pushed a journalist off a subway platform, even though he did say “every prime minister [he has] known wishes they had murdered a journalist.”