Donald Trump pretty much got his wish—a presidential debate without a moderator.
But for Lester Holt, the NBC Nightly News anchor chosen to preside over the first of three debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Monday night’s back-and-forth was truly, as Clinton supporter Mark Cuban quipped in an entirely different context, the “Humbling at Hofstra.”
While the debate might well have done its job in giving American voters their deepest and most sustained look at the two people who could become leader of the free world, they barely got a look at Holt, who spent his debate in a kind of nightmare limbo—occasionally heard, as he struggled mostly unsuccessfully to keep the candidates on time and on point, but never seen.
“The Internet Wants to Know What Happened to Lester Holt at the Presidential Debate,” read the headline on the Fortune magazine website, which sampled tweets such as this one: “Just grabbed some milk from the fridge and sure enough ’s picture is on the side of the carton.”
Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, captured the weird and frankly unsettling scenario in a piece headlined “CNN LAUNCHES MANHUNT AFTER LESTER HOLT VANISHES FROM DEBATE.”
“CNN launched an urgent manhunt Monday after Lester Holt, the moderator of the first Presidential debate of the 2016 general election, mysteriously vanished two minutes into the contest,” Borowitz reported.
“Network officials became concerned after the two Presidential nominees, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, were observed shrieking at each other nonstop for ninety seconds without intervention from Holt.”
For the 57-year-old Holt, it was supposed to be a crowning moment in a rocket-launched career that unexpectedly achieved escape velocity last year when Brian Williams, the top-rated network news anchor for the better part of a decade, was forced from his throne amid scandal and Holt was suddenly elevated from journeyman television journalist to alpha male of NBC’s news division.
This was going to be his golden opportunity to introduce himself to a huuuuge domestic and worldwide audience, and show off his journalistic chops and anchormanic authority as he sharply interrogated the candidates in the service of the planet’s most powerful democracy.
It was appealing and kind of touching when Holt, who is universally thought of at NBC and elsewhere as a good guy and a thoroughgoing pro, told the elite crowd in the auditorium before the debate formally began, “The thud you heard tonight was the sound of my knees buckling when Frank [Fahrenkopf, the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates] said 100 million people would be watching tonight.”
Holt then sat down at his desk onstage, introduced Clinton and Trump, and was never seen again—until the end of the debate, when the candidates shook hands, their family members piled onstage, and the so-called moderator (who also received a handshake from Trump and Clinton) appeared in a wide shot from a great distance—a tiny man sitting behind an outsized desk.
Needless to say, the fact that Holt was not an on-screen presence, during what was incessantly touted by cable pundits as “the most important presidential debate in the modern history of American politics!,” seriously undermined his ability to discipline the proceedings.
Clinton and, much more often, Trump, regularly steamrolled over his attempts to keep them to the two-minute time-limit, move on to another subject, interject questions, or otherwise exercise a modicum of control. Partisans in the audience, usually Trumpkins, also regularly disregarded his pre-debate admonition not to applaud or cheer their particular candidate’s declarations.
This viewer was left wondering if Holt, or for that matter the candidates, were aware that he was simply a disembodied voice, and not a physical force—a thwarted authority figure more easily ignored than a beleaguered substitute teacher of an unruly, spitball-hurling classroom.
And if Holt was aware of what was going on in the control room, where the commission’s director was producing 90-odd minutes of road-blocked television and picking all the camera angles, one wonders how he could have agreed to it.
At least one debate reviewer, however, loved Holt’s performance: Donald Trump.
“I thought Lester did a great job,” Trump told CNN. “Honestly, I thought he did a great job. I thought they [the questions] were very fair.”
Indeed, most of the questions Holt was permitted to ask, however few, were solid and well-formulated. He grilled Trump on his latent birtherism and challenged him on his reasons for not releasing his tax returns, but largely failed in his efforts to keep Trump from filibustering, wandering into a polemical netherworld, and—for the first time in the history of general election debates—mentioning the words “Howard Stern” (his Iraq War interlocutor) “Rosie O’Donnell” (his long-ago adversary from The View), and “Sidney Blumenthal” (the Clinton confidant who allegedly, though Blumenthal vehemently denies it, raised the first doubts about Obama’s natural-born citizenship).
At one point, while dishing out non-responsive word salad, Trump peevishly interrupted Holt as he tried to enforce some semblance of order.
“You asked me a question,” Trump chided the ignorable invisible man who may have been somewhere nearby.
It wasn’t a good look.
As a corporate culture, the debate commission—which was founded in 1988 by the two major parties, a Washington replacement for the nonpartisan and independent League of Women Voters—has long been allergic to activist debate moderators.
The commission’s longtime executive director, Janet Brown, told CNN on Sunday that the anchors chosen to keep the trains running on time should not be in the business of fact-checking politicians, because how were they to differentiate between big facts and little facts.
When CNN’s Candy Crowley leapt in to correct Mitt Romney in President Obama’s favor during the 2012 foreign policy debate—pronouncing that contrary to the Republican nominee’s assertion, Obama promptly called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror”—the debate commission had a collective aneurysm and has been quietly preaching non-intervention in the years since Crowley’s alleged impertinence.
One can only hope that the next three debates reflect a prudent change of heart.