Virtual debates are just what the doctor (and common sense) ordered

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. Nixon was in Los Angeles, Senator Kennedy in New York on Oct. 13, 1960. The split-screen telecast 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, livestreaming and surround sound. 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.

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. 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 Donald 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.

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.

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