He did a great job.
That was in part, certainly, because Holt succeeded at the most obvious task of the moderator: asking the right questions—the most urgent questions—in the right way. About, in this case, trade, and jobs creation, and police violence, and Trump’s long record of misogyny. And Holt asked his questions in ways that, as all such questions should, forced—or, at least, encouraged—the candidates to move beyond their comfort zones, to reveal their habits of thinking as well as their talking points. (Holt: “Do you believe police are implicitly biased against black people?” Clinton: “Lester, I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone—not just police.”)
But Holt also succeeded at the more complicated challenge in debate moderation: knowing when, and indeed how, to stay silent. Holt’s “disappearance” in the debate, such as it was, had nothing to do (I assume) with kidnappings and/or toilets; it had to do with his apparent recognition that silence—in debate moderation, as in everything else—carries its own kind of power.
Holt’s step-back approach was on the one hand evidence of him simply following the format of the debate, as mandated by the Commission on Presidential Debates:
Each segment will begin with a question. One candidate will have two minutes to respond, then the other candidate will have two minutes to respond. That will be followed by 10 minutes of open debate and discussion.
But it also had to do, likely, with the visual elements and affordances of Monday’s debate—all of which, in the end, empowered silence. In his (excellent) consideration of the matchup, my colleague James Fallows noted the significance of the one-on-one pairing—Clinton versus Trump, the Thrilla in Hempstead—as opposed to the chaotic scrums of the primary debates. “With three or more contenders onstage,” Fallows wrote, “each participant is mainly fighting for airtime and looking for chances to get in planned zingers. Participants are talking over one another; the moderator can rarely pursue an extended line of follow-ups with any one speaker; and overall the dynamics are like that of a pundit panel on a cable-news talk show.”
Contrast that to Monday’s match-up, which, by nature of its two-candidate format, emphasized the things that a scrum-styled debate could not—things like conversation, and reaction, and interaction. The human stuff, in other words, that makes debates so personally revealing and also so compelling to witness. And contrast, as well, the visual values of the primary debates—the camera trained either on one speaker, or on all of them at once—versus those of the one-on-one version. Monday was unrelenting in its presentation of the candidates. They were always on, always performing, whether they were talking or not. Their reactions were as much a part of the proceedings as their words. The debate was, essentially, a 90-minute reaction shot.