The Origin of House of Cards

18522215_richardson_377985b Among the reminiscences about the late Margaret Thatcher, I found most fascinating an account by politican/novelist Lord Dobbs. He reveals the origin of his novel about the venomous politician Francis Urquhart, which begat House of Cards, the splendid BBC mini-series (recently remade with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright).

Dobbs was Margaret Thatcher’s long serving, loyal right-hand man for many years. But during the 1987 election, she turned on him in a meeting:

The term handbagging didn’t do justice to that outburst. I had never seen her so unreasoning or wretchedly unfair. It left deep wounds.

That moment changed our relationship, and changed my life. A few weeks later I was sitting beside a swimming pool, on holiday for the first time in more than two years, bruised, hurt. I’d just rejected an offer to write the inside story of ”the swinging handbag”. I don’t do kiss and tell, yet it got me thinking. Perhaps I could write a novel instead?

I sat for three hours with a bottle of wine and a writing pad, the dark corners of politics turning in my mind, the wounds still weeping. By the time I’d finished the bottle I had only two letters scrawled large upon the page. F.U.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “The Origin of House of Cards”

  1. Interesting, but surprising in a disappointing way. Why surprising? Here’s a sentence from Dobbs’ bio in Wikipedia:

    He worked on The Boston Globe as an editorial assistant and political feature writer from 1971 to 1975.

    Hmmm … political writer during the last years of the LBJ administration and the first years of Tricky Dick. Those two guys–one from the left and one from the right–were the epitome of professional politician. Neither a nice guy, nor even pretending to be a nice guy, like some politicians practice. They wore their ruthlessness as a badge of honor, and they wielded their power with obvious relish.

    Dobbs was there at the globe writing about it in the early seventies. Then he went back to England and began working for the Conservative Party in the late seventies, including a stint as a personal advisor to Thatcher. And yet it took an unfortunate and meaningless incident, triggered by fatigue, eight years later, for Dobbs to see Thatcher for the Nixon/LBJ that she was?

    What the heck was he doing for those eight years, with duct tape over his eyes and ears?

    1. I assume that, for those eight years, he was working for a cause he believed in and for a woman he admired. And as he seems to to have been no angel himself(“Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”), a determined careerism might also have insulated him from whatever it is you think he must have seen or experienced over there. One can put up with a lot when being rewarded with power and trust (and money — he worked for Saatchi while advising the government).

      LBJ was gone for two years when Dobbs started at the Globe, a gig which coincided with his graduate studies. It’s possible that a young, ambitious, foreign policy-minded conservative might not have seen Nixon (or Thatcher)in the same light as you or I.

      1. I would add that it is qualitatively different to be a journalist covering politicians versus being someone on the inside who works for them and with them every day. You see much more of who people really are in the latter role, and you yourself are more emotionally engaged (reporters I believe try not to be)

      2. “LBJ was gone for two years when Dobbs started at the Globe,…”

        Karl, the above sentence I copied from Wikipedia says Dobbs started as a political feature writer at the Globe in 1971. Is that incorrect?

        And yes, regarding a policy-minded partisan of either persuasion, he might see those of his own persuasion “in a different light” as regards policy, but if he didn’t notice that both LBJ and Tricky Dick were hard-driven, take-no-prisoners, win-the-war-let-somebody-else-worry-about-the-casualties personalities, then (as I previously said) he must have had duct tape over his eyes and ears.

        1. Not incorrect at all, but I don’t understand how you got from that to “political writer during the last years of the LBJ administration” when LBJ left office in January of 1969.

          As for duct tape, isn’t it possible that his eyes were open and he simply liked what he saw? When, several years later, he was on the receiving end of some petty BS he stopped liking it. Never having been a careerist or in a position of power, I’m just guessing here.

        2. Oops!

          I have such vivid memories of the 1972 election with the Watergate fiasco that I forgot LBJ left in 1969.

          On a related note … can you believe that was 40 years ago?

          1. On a related note … can you believe that was 40 years ago?

            Nope — still grappling with the SIXTIETH anniversary of the Beatles first album!

          2. @karl: Yes, it was called “Please Please teach me (to add correctly)” D’oh. : )

  2. The really scary part is that this appears to be part of a 68-page (!) tribute magazine to Margaret Thatcher in the print edition of today’s Daily Telegraph. At least that’s what I saw at the newsstand today. (And some people wonder how it earned the nickname “Torygraph”).

    1. Katja — As you know, British papers do not engage in the US practice of pretending not to have a political tilt, so why shouldn’t an openly right of center paper publish a memorial about a Tory PM? I would assume that The Guardian did tributes when Atlee died – why not?

      However, did you notice that the Telegraph also carried Peter Oborne’s stinging op-ed criticizing the Queen for attending Thatcher’s funeral and not attending Atlee’s?

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9984619/Margaret-Thatcher-This-is-a-state-funeral-and-thats-a-mistake.html

      1. Who’s to say she does not regret failing to attend Attlee’s? Also, Attlee’s reputation has steadily risen since his death. At the time (1967), he would probably have been widely considered a grey, puritanical nonentity by the upper class.

        1. We don’t know of course, but Oborne’s preference is that she attend neither and not give a politician the trappings of a state funeral. See his article for yourself, but he argues for keeping the crown and the state distinct save for extreme exceptions (e.g., Churchill).

      2. I am not concerned by the Telegraph’s presumed bias (or that of any other newspaper); I’m questioning the economic sense a 68-page tribute magazine makes and am wondering what exactly motivated that idea. There’s political tilt and there’s appearing to be a political groupie. Political tilt is headlining their front page article about her funeral “I Vow to Thee My Country”; it may be over the top, and maybe the Telegraph may not even have been aware of her use of it in the Sermon on the Mound making it perhaps not the most tactful choice. But that’s still pretty standard stuff and different from telling your readers, “see the Telegraph this Sunday, April 14, for full details” to “purchase your exclusive Margaret Thatcher commemorative pack”. The latter makes you sound like the publishing arm of a political party.

        1. I see this as more innocuous than you do. When famous people die (including politicians) there are big, photo filled tribute issues from US and UK news magazines because the publishers of those magazines want to make money, as I assume does the Telegraph.

          1. I’d believe that if I hadn’t seen a fair amount of political hackery from the Telegraph over the years.

            The classical case is their position on the EU, or rather how that position changes, depending on the politician who supports it.

            In general, the Telegraph views the EU as a disaster, for a combination of economic reasons, having to tolerate the ECJ’s “human rights” impositions, and assorted nationalistic reasons.

            Except when it involves Alex Salmond and the Scottish referendum for independence, at which point leaving the EU becomes a disaster.

            Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding either position; it is not very difficult writing up either a pro-EU or an anti-EU position that makes complete logical sense.

            However, when the Telegraph’s position painfully obviously switches between polar opposites depending on a politician’s party affiliation … yeah.

            Also, as I wrote in response to Warren, I’d like to see how that magazine is making them money.

        2. I’ve got no brief for Thatcher (quite the opposite), but if the Telegraph is making money on the commemorative memorabilia of her death (and I’d be fascinated by people advertising in the special Thatcher Memorial Magazine), that doesn’t make them “the publishing arm of a political party”, it makes them a savvy business that makes its money by selling to adherents of a political party. Taken to its extreme this relationship can wind up with the political party serving as the marketing/brand-loyalty arm of a media firm (see Fox News, it often seems). Where it gets complicated is if the Telegraph were to lose money on the commemorative memorabilia of Thatcher’s death, but could nonetheless justify the losses as a marketing expense rather than a partisan donation, on the grounds that the Telegraph‘s public commemoration of Thatcher won them the more fervent allegiance of a bunch of Tories, an allegiance they could monetize over the years to come.

          1. If they make money from it, yes. But will they? Color me skeptical. Such a magazine is not cheap to print and they did not appear to charge extra for it, so that cost would have to be paid for by an increase in readership and advertising.

          2. @Katja:
            I have no idea of the financial workings of the media industry these days (I know just enough to have negotiated a 50% share of royalties when RBC becomes a movie, which Mark agreed to with stunning naivete). What I see is that Newsweek magazine put out JFK tributes issues more than once so I assume they made money. Daily Mail gives away music sometimes (e.g., Paul McCartney’s new song on DVD inside!) and also movies on DVD — they keep doing it so I assume it makes them money. As a paper with a right leaning audience, it could be a good business decision for the Telegraph to do this, maybe some of those people will become more regular purchasers of the paper.

            More generally, The Guardian and Telegraph (along with countless other UK newspapers) have been accused of political hackery going back for longer than either of us have been alive….but generally by people who don’t like them anyway, so I doubt it keeps their editors up at night.

          3. Keith, I’m quite willing to consider the possibility that this individual example may just be a case of the Telegraph being optimistic, or, heck, even making money.

            If it were just that, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Newspapers have made decisions with questionable benefits in the past and will continue to do so in the future. But I’m seeing a pattern here, as I wrote above; in particular, you also shouldn’t forget that the Telegraph traditionally had strong personal ties to the Tory leadership (e.g., Charles Moore, the former editor, resigning in 2003 to write Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography).

            Most importantly, I’m seeing a difference between political bias (which is normal) and toeing a party line (which I find worrying).

            This is different from, say, the Guardian or the Independent. Either the Guardian or the Independent may be writing bad articles (in fact, I can recall some really bad ones), but they do not speak with the same unified voice that I’ve been seeing in the Telegraph. In the case of the Guardian, that may be because of its unusual ownership structure; for the Independent, there has always been the traditional tension between a progressive stance on social issues and a classical liberal stance on economic issue, which didn’t align it with any of the existing political parties (except for the brief period when the LibDems appeared competitive and Nick Clegg hadn’t sold out yet).

            I note that this is not a matter of political alignment; But if I had to nominate a conservative counterpart to the Guardian, I’d think of the German [1] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Like the Guardian, it does not have private for-profit owners, but is owned by a foundation; while inarguably speaking with a conservative voice, it does not seem to be beholden to any political party. A major reason for its relative diversity within the conservative spectrum is probably the fact that it is being run not by a single editor, but by five co-equal editors, all of which are conservative, but conservative in different ways. And the FAZ recently helped save the progressive “Frankfurter Rundschau”. As one of the conservative editors commented: “An open civil society thrives on a diversity of opinions; it finds uniformity alien.”

            Conversely, there are plenty of left-of-center publications that are closely aligned with political parties; to give an American example (admittedly, not a newspaper), I find reading the Daily Kos really predictable and tedious in very much the same way that the Telegraph can grate on my nerves. I read newspapers and other media for insights, not for cheerleading.

            [1] After the end of WW II, the German media were largely rebuilt in the image of the British ones; there are still considerable similarities: in particular, German newspapers are pretty open and unapologetic about their political bias, just like British newspapers.

          4. Hi Katja: The Telegraph has columns by Lord Tebbit and Mayor Johnson, who as you know are Tory politicians, so that is very much in line with what you say.

            Yet they also showed Boris getting beaten up by Andrew Marr
            http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9950748/Boris-Johnson-not-true-that-I-am-a-nasty-piece-of-work.html

            And they have a regular Blairite columnist whose name I am embarrased to say eludes me at the moment (Changing planes as I type).

            I have written for The Guardian and always like their G2 section, but am no expert on the paper…but are they as hard on Labour and trade unions (which give the party 90% of its money) as on Tories? I rather doubt it. Didn’t the Guardian walk in lockstep with some leftist politicians over the years…during the coal strike that Thatcher broke for example…or Jarrow…as I said I have no made a historical study of the paper but I would suspect this happens at least sometimes. The Independent I agree is more unpredictable..I wonder if that’s why its readership is dropping fast, did you know the Sinday just folded?

            As a general matter, conservatives in the UK are less fractious than leftists in the UK and that would logically be reflected in the papers — but isn’t that true in the US as well because that’s the way conservatives are and leftists are what they are (Will Rogers I think said that he belonged to no organised political party…because he was a Democrat).

          5. Keith, let me stress again that it’s not that the place on the political spectrum that either the Guardian or the Telegraph occupies; I can appreciate well-written articles of either political couleur, even if they make me grit my teeth (and sometimes because they do).

            What I’m talking about here is political alignment with a party beyond a shared political philosophy.

            The Guardian, as you may or may not know, is ultimately owned by a trust, Scott Trust Ltd., via the Guardian Media Group. This setup is specifically designed to secure the editorial independence of the Guardian (and its financial survival, as it hass consistently been losing money, and is cross-subsidized by other entities in the GMG).

            I cannot say much personally about coverage of the miner’s strike; I was an 8-year old in Michigan at the time, and Ohio was still a distant land for me, let alone anything on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. 🙂

            That said, recent events did make me look into the issue of the miner’s strike. According to what I found in “The Miners and the Media: Themes of Newspaper Reporting” by Elaine Wade, the Guardian’s coverage of the strike was fairly neutral and definitely not “in lockstep with leftist politicians”. E.g.: “In another ‘under the roof’ account Stephen Cook of the Guardian spent a week with the Metropolitan Police in the coalfields and found that even for the police, the experience of the dispute was one of tedious monotony rather than violence and hatred.” Or: “The Guardian concluded in one analysis that ‘Thatcherism and Scargillism’ feed off one another and the country is in need of a more beneficial approach.”

            That said, I expect them to be more critical of the Conservatives than of Labour or the unions; they are a center-left paper after all. But I also see a lot of smart analysis that is little concerned with party lines, like this one. And in the 2010 elections, they supported the Liberal Democrats, not Labour. Overall, the Guardian is probably more center-left than a classical left-wing newspaper.

            The Independent’s troubles (and as I understand it, the Independent on Sunday didn’t fold, but was merged with the main publication, though accompanied by significant layoffs) most likely is merely a symptom of newspapers are in a tough spot in general in the Internet age (which eats both into their readership and their advertising revenue). The Independent’s “i” spinoff, after all, seems to be doing pretty well, with lots of shared content, but a different format.

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