In Conversation: Tom Maday & Peter Shea

In Conversation: Tom Maday & Peter Shea

History has always been kind to the successful, but what about those who fought hard for their beliefs but missed out on the glories afforded to the victors? This subject is the driving force behind In the Arena, a study of monuments and memorials dedicated to America’s losing presidential candidates by photographer Tom Maday and writer Peter Shea. A celebration of the individuals who worked tirelessly in an effort to uphold America’s democracy, In the Arena boldly questions our society’s perspective of those who are not victorious in their endeavors, and whether this constitutes failure or something much more honorable.

What was the impetus behind creating In the Arena?

Peter Shea: Tom and I had worked on a book project together about 25 years ago. I had a minor role on a book that he worked on called Great Chicago Stories. Tom was ripe for a new book project and he talked to me a little bit about the Stephen Douglas monument in Chicago. It was striking to me, the idea of a monument to someone who's best remembered for not becoming president. And we thought that it wouldn't be a bad idea to do a book on the people who didn't become presidents, and the monuments to them.

Tom Maday: That monument is an epic, epic monument. I was a Chicagoan interested in history and this memorial monument was not even on my radar. I had no idea that it even existed. So I think that was the disconnect for us and what started the conversation.

Detail view of Stephen Douglas statue

Detail view of Stephen Douglas statue

Why did you decide to focus on the losing presidential candidates rather than the presidents themselves?

Peter: Because those guys have already been covered. When we started the product we knew that we had one really positive thing, which was that we weren't competing with other people to tell these stories. They had been overlooked, and that in itself makes some good material. Rather than go over the same territory or presidents ad nauseam, it was the idea of looking at the people who lost and thinking about the parallels and the connections between them, and also to pull back and think about why it is that Americans are so forgiving about failure in business but not forgiving about failure in politics. To become a serious candidate for presidency in the United States suggests considerable ability, so why do we tend to ignore these people who don't win?

Tom: When we began this book, memorials and monuments and statues were really not on the national radar in terms of discussion and debate. That hadn't started. A few years ago with the Confederate era statues, the Robert E. Lee statues, the naming of buildings at Yale, and so on, all of a sudden these memorials and the reasons behind why Americans name buildings or highways or cities after individuals became part of a conversation surrounding why attention was being called to these particular people.

Did you both travel to and visit all of these monuments?

Peter: Tom traveled. I just traveled to libraries. (Laughter)

Tom, what was the process like of traveling to all these different monuments all over the country? Did it feel like a pilgrimage of sorts?

Tom: It felt like something that I needed to do. If I had an excuse to be in Arizona, or if I had an excuse to be in Washington, DC, I would add in that work. While driving my son to college, there were a few stops that we made. Pete's a slow writer because he has a full time job. I have a full time job. This was a project that we both enjoyed doing and working on separately. We did collaborate on one important photo shoot, and that was of Michael Dukakis. We met him in Boston, and Pete has an interesting backstory about how we even got to meet him and how that photoshoot and Dukakis’s involvement came about.

Peter: A friend of mine worked with Dukakis at Northeastern University. He said, “I’ll do an email invitation to Mike Dukakis.” And so he did. I was grateful for him and was waiting to hear back. Then, a couple of days later, I'm sitting with my family on the Boston subway and I realize that the man I’m sitting across from is Michael Dukakis. I thought, “Okay, this is really, really weird. But I'm going to feel really, really bad if I don't seize this opportunity.” But I'm struggling with it so much, because as someone from New York, I'm trying not to speak to people on the subway, particularly public figures who probably just want to be left alone.

Mrs. Dukakis is looking over at me and she's probably seeing my expression, and she nudges her husband and says, “Mike, I think this guy wants to talk to you.” And so without encouragement, I said, “Hi, Governor Dukakis. Jim Grenier, my friend, works with you at Northeastern and did an email invitation. I'm trying to get you to write an introduction for a book I’m writing on presidential candidates, would you be interested in doing it?” He said, “Yeah, sure. Just follow up with another email on Monday, and we'll work out the details.” And that was it.

The funny thing is, I ran into Governor Dukakis again on the subway. It just started to become a thing. It was just very weird. I know that he's taken the subway for decades, but the odds of actually running into him, particularly in light of the project, was very eerie.

Was there a singular monument or statue that moved you the most when you were photographing it, Tom, or writing about it, Pete?

Peter: In terms of the pictures that I saw, I really liked the Barry Goldwater statue. A lot of the monuments from the 19th century often have this elevation which was very appealing to people in that century, but today it looks a little bit pompous. The Goldwater one had a much more human dimension without all the frills. It’s set out in the sagebrush area, it's not in the middle of a busy street, and I thought that was another interesting choice. After you see enough monuments, you become a connoisseur of all the decisions that people make to create monuments and you think, “I like this. I don't like that.” And that was one I liked.

Tom: I always think of the William Jennings Bryan statue in the Bryan Memorial Park in his small hometown of Salem, Illinois. The backstory of the monument is that it had a very prominent place…was it in the National Mall, Pete?

Peter: Yeah, it was in the National Mall. Franklin Roosevelt was there for the opening because at that time, Bryan was still one of the great luminaries of the Democratic Party and honoring his memory was a shrewd political move for Roosevelt. But then, a few years later, as Bryan's memory began to recede, they started to quietly move it away. They offered it to his hometown and they said, “Of course we’ll have it.” You don't really think of monuments having an expiration date but they do, particularly when politics are involved.

Excluding the 2016 election, is there a candidate that you most wish had made it out of the arena into the Oval Office?

Peter: I think there were a number of really good people who would have been better choices than the people who actually won. There were a couple in beginning of the 20th century, and they probably dodged a bullet by not becoming president. One of the candidates, William Howard Taft, was running against Woodrow Wilson. Taft was a remarkable person, but he was too much like Wilson. In many ways, there was no way to really distinguish him. He went back to the Supreme Court and that's probably, temperamentally, where he was best suited for. But that was part of the problem. The way in which parties chose candidates really highlighted the fact that for a long, long time, there were not significant differences between the candidates. It was a blonde guy and the brunette guy. Politically there was much more of an American center. A figure like Winfield Scott in the 19th century would have been a better choice. There was a period before the Civil War where we went through a 20 year dry spell in terms of talent and chief executives. Everyone who was truly capable didn't become president because somebody disliked them, so the job went to people that nobody disliked because nobody cared enough about them to dislike them.

What has focusing on these losing presidential candidates taught you both about the notions of failure and success in American society?

Tom: Pete, you you sum it up nicely in the intro. Everyone, all Americans, needs to be engaged in the process. You can't sit back and criticize if you are not in the arena. If you're not engaged and if you’re not fighting for what you believe in, then you have no say in the outcome. In the Arena speaks to our admiration of these individuals, many of whom have been largely forgotten, because of the the energy and effort that that it takes to engage in a presidential campaign. As Michael Dukakis talks about in his foreword for the book, it's one of the most difficult and demanding things that a person can do. These individuals rose to that challenge. They came up short, but they rose to the challenge and we’re fighting for what they believed in.

Peter: The title In the Arena is a famous quote that has been used for several books. But what is overlooked is the title of the speech from which it came, which is called “Citizenship in a Republic,” which nobody knows. They know that quote, but they don't know the actual speech. The theme of the speech is that a republic, in order to succeed, needs people engaged who are willing to fail. Republics take their vitality from the people, rather than solely from their leadership classes as it was a more monarchical aristocratic society. Therefore, we need a critical core of people who are willing to put themselves out there, even at the cost of failure. The energy that goes into being willing to take risks is the fuel of a republic. When you stop being that kind of people, then the republic stops being a meaningful entity. There's a Roman quote, “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” That is a classic Republican perspective. You have to do things. You have to try things.

In the Arena is available now. The 256-page, hardbound book features 75+ color photographs. Priced at $45, it profiles 34 American leaders who captured their party’s nomination for the presidency, but never reached the Oval Office.