The criticisms came quickly. “CNN LAUNCHES MANHUNT AFTER LESTER HOLT VANISHES FROM DEBATE,” Andy Borowitz quipped. “Just grabbed some milk from the fridge and sure enough @LesterHoltNBC’s picture is on the side of the carton,” Chris Sacca agreed. The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, provided a more studied analysis of Holt’s (dis)appearance as the moderator of 2016’s first presidential debate: She gave Holt “a solid B-minus in this Mission Impossible,” on the grounds that “he pushed back some; not enough.” The Independent provided a less studied analysis: Had Holt, it wondered, “got stuck in the toilet?”
Moderating a presidential debate will always be a high-stakes, high-pressure task—even more so when that debate will claim an audience, in the end, of more than 100 million viewers, and even more so when the campaign in question involves a candidate who seems to interpret reality itself as a light suggestion. To do well, Holt would need to ask good questions, of course; he would also need, however, to find a happy middle between fact-checking the candidates in real time and letting them, you know, actually talk—to the public, and to each other. Interrupting the debaters, and not; challenging their assertions, and not; Lauering, and not; these were elements of the delicate balance Holt needed to strike while conducting Monday’s 90-minute long orchestra of American democracy.
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.
And Holt, to his credit, deftly exploited that. He stepped back—or, if you prefer, he milk-cartoned himself—because he seemed to recognize the obvious: that he, after all, was not the point of the debate. The candidates were. His silence allowed the two to interact as they might were they in a room together, sans cameras. It allowed for a kind of Lincoln-Douglas veneer. It allowed for the most basic human elements of the 2016 campaign—How do you the candidates relate to one another, as people?—to shine through. It suggested that the biggest revelation of the night was an answer to a question that needed no asking at all.