The initial Kennedy-Nixon debate is often remembered as a watershed moment in American politics, and it was. The first live televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates is recalled chiefly for Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow in contrast to John F. Kennedy’s more telegenic style. But several details are sometimes lost in time: There were a total of four debates not one; most journalists rated Vice President Nixon as the winner on substance; and, most instructive 60 years later, the third debate was not done with the candidates in the same room. Mr. Nixon was in Los Angeles, Senator Kennedy in New York on Oct. 13, 1960. The split-screen telecast (the second most-watched of the four contests) was handled this way not because of any health, economic or political crisis but simply for convenience during the campaign.
If presidential candidates could avail themselves of cutting edge technology back in the days of bulky black-and-white consoles and rabbit ears, they surely can go old school in the era of flat-screen high-definition, live-streaming and surround sound. And that should begin with the vice presidential debate now scheduled to take place in-person on Wednesday in Salt Lake City. As helpful as it may be to place the candidates 12 feet apart as the Commission on Presidential Debates last week agreed to do, it’s stupefying that the candidates would be in the same studio at all. In case anyone missed it, President Donald Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus and spent the weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his condition serious enough to warrant some experimental treatments. On that basis alone, Vice President Pence should be in quarantine this week. And President Trump shouldn’t even be thinking of in-person appearances for his final two debates, Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville.
Let’s set the record straight. It’s not fearfulness that causes Americans to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to avoid worsening the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s sound reasoning and respect for others. Mr. Pence should understand this most of all. As Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently observed, the vice president should be in quarantine having been in close proximity with President Trump as recently as last Tuesday. That the vice president has so far tested negative for the virus is good news, but it doesn’t mean he’s in the clear quite yet. Just based on the number of positive tests coming out of the Rose Garden announcement of Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett (eight and counting), isn’t it time to exercise just a bit of caution? And what exactly is lost if the candidates are not in the same studio together? Eye contact? Given the fiasco of the first presidential debate and Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to follow the rules, the mute button of video conferencing looks like an especially attractive side benefit, too.
Enough is enough. Ignoring reasonable safety precautions like wearing a mask or keeping social distance doesn’t project leadership or even machismo, it’s just blatant foolhardiness. The worst example yet may have been President Trump’s spin around Bethesda, which required forcing Secret Service agents to share air space with him in his SUV, windows rolled up. The only purpose was to create a photo-op. And for this, lives had to be endangered? Americans are supposed to find this inspiring? How many CDC guidelines were ignored with that motorcade? One can only hope the poor unfortunates on duty that day aren’t currently tracking the virus back home to share with their loved ones.
What’s especially insulting about all this is how there are so many Americans, from first-responders to hospital staff, out there risking their health and well-being to maintain basic services while so many millions more are back on the job but with sensible precautions like limiting human contact. The quicker everyone adheres to best practices, the more under control the virus will be and the fewer new cases and fatalities. The people running for the highest offices in the land must follow suit, pitch in and set a good example. What worked in 1960 can work in 2020. Cancel the debates or do what worked just fine all those years ago: Let them square off in the virtual world.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.