In the first televised presidential debate, John F. Kennedy looked fit and tan; Richard Nixon, with his five-o’clock shadow, looked nervous and pasty. Both showed a command of the issues, but appearances mattered.
So did the set and furniture.
The set was extremely spare. The candidates sat in Danish modern chairs conceived by Hans Wegner, the famous designer, and spoke from behind skeletal podiums that resembled music stands and offered no place to hide.
“The whole set was extremely modern, and that gave a sense of faith in the future,” recalled Carl Magnusson, the furniture designer.
The ambiance might have helped Mr. Kennedy as much as his tan: he was billing himself as the candidate of the future.
Campaigns have learned a lot since then. The set is so critical that types of debates are named after the furniture and setting: there are podium, table and town hall debates.
“Set design makes an important contribution” and often dictates the ensuing dynamic of the debate, said Alan Schroeder, the author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.”
“When candidates stand behind lecterns, a physical barrier is created that makes it more acceptable for the debaters to clash,” said Mr. Schroeder, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “By contrast, when the candidates sit at a table, the close proximity tends to discourage either participant from going on the attack.”
No wonder, then, that negotiations between rival campaigns can get testy over set design, furniture, format and props.
Consider some of the issues that arose leading up to the debate between President Ford and his challenger, Jimmy Carter, in 1976, as detailed by Professor Schroeder in his book.
One issue was the hue of blue that would be used on the backdrop. Mr. Ford’s advisers worried that a darker blue might emphasize the president’s thinning hair. Mr. Ford, who had been lampooned as clumsy on “Saturday Night Live,” also wanted a bracket on his podium to secure his water glass. In debates when Mr. Carter and the man who defeated him, Ronald Reagan, were incumbents, both argued — without success — to have the presidential seal affixed to their podiums.
Height is often a point of contention. Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice president candidate, stood on a riser behind her podium when she debated George H. W. Bush. So did the Senator John McCain in a debate during his first Senate campaign, in 1986, according to his biographer, Robert Timberg, in “John McCain: An American Odyssey.” Mr. McCain’s opponent, Richard Kimball, tried to provoke him, saying, "You come and you stand on a soapbox to make yourself look taller." But Mr. McCain didn’t take the bait.
Props also figure into the negotiations. Vice President Dan Quayle wanted to bring a copy of Al Gore’s book, “Earth in the Balance,” and read from it during their 1992 vice presidential debate. Mr. Gore said he would agree, provided he could bring a potato. (Mr. Quayle had famously misspelled the word during a visit to sixth-grade spelling bee earlier that year.)
In this year’s president race, John McCain and Barack Obama have already debated twice — once standing at lecterns, and, last Tuesday, in a town-hall format in which the candidates moved about the set as they fielded questions. In their final debate on Wednesday, the two men will sit together at a table with a moderator.
The ground rules called for the candidates to answer questions while standing. Mr. Kennedy’s advisers thought this would benefit him because Mr. Nixon was suffering from a knee injury. When Mr. Nixon shifted his weight behind the music-stand like lectern, he gave the impression that he was ill-at-ease.
The height issue first arose in the planning for this debate and resulted in what became known as the “belt-buckle compromise,” according to Professor Schroeder. President Ford was 3 1/2 inches taller than Mr. Carter, prompting the Carter camp to seek what Professor Schroeder called “compensatory measures.” As a result, the top of the lectern Mr. Ford used was 2 1/2 inches above his belt buckle; Mr. Carter’s was 1 1/2 inches below his buckle.
1980 Carter Reagan
Although President Carter was not allowed to affix the Presidential seal to his podium for their single debate, the podiums they used resembled the one use by Mr. Carter when he traveled. Mr. Reagan ended up being the beneficiary. The image of Mr. Reagan behind the lectern made him seem more presidential and less extreme, analysts said at the time. Viewers could imagine him as president.
1988 Bush Dukakis
Height again became an issue. Michael Dukakis was 4 inches shorter than George H.W. Bush. Contentious negotiations ensued. At one point, according to Professor Schroeder, James Baker, a top aide to Mr. Bush, asked, “What are you going to do when you have to negotiated with Gorbachev. Ask for a little platform?” In the end, the set designer, Hugh Grant Raisky, built a nearly invisible riser of laminated wood for Mr. Dukakis. It worked — until Mr. Dukakis stepped down at the end of the debate to shake hands with Mr. Bush.
This was the first of the so-called “town hall” debates in which the candidates sat perched on stools and fielded questions from an audience in Richmond, Va.
2004 Cheney Edwards
Vice President Richard Cheney and Senator John Edwards sat in swivel chairs at a horse-shoe shaped desk as they field questions from the moderator. Mr. Cheney’s aides had pushed for the format, according to Professor Schroeder, because of the vice president’s familiarity with “Meet the Press”-style shows and because of his heart problems. With a table debate, said Professor Schroeder, “It doesn’t work to go after each other in a nasty personal way."