Monday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, billed unironically and perhaps appropriately as the debate of the century, was also talked up as a chance for journalism to (belatedly) shine. After a year of endless criticism, much of it well-deserved, the press’s reputation reached a nadir with Matt Lauer’s pathetically soft interview of Donald Trump at a recent “commander-in-chief” forum. Would moderator Lester Holt, like Lauer an NBC newsman, challenge the candidates more forthrightly?
Holt’s performance, like Hillary Clinton’s, was not a total knockout. But like Clinton’s, it was more than adequate. And in a year like this one, that counts as a victory for a beleaguered press corps.
If there was a problem with Holt’s moderating, it was his occasional inability to control the candidates—mostly one candidate. Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton numerous times, especially in the debate’s first half, and Holt struggled to rein in his exclamations. He also failed to keep either candidate from going well over the time limit on specific questions.
But keeping an ultratight lid on things is not the most important job of a moderator. Asking good and challenging questions is. So while Trump did filibuster, both candidates had plenty of time to make their cases; perhaps more importantly, their characters shined through the fog. And the questions Holt asked were very smart.
Thank Holt’s pointed questions for a debate that was about as substantive as any conversation in which Donald Trump is doing half the talking could possibly be. Holt started by bringing up the subject of manufacturing, and pushed Trump on the specifics of his plans. His question on nuclear weapons, to which Trump responded with Palin-esque gibberish, was also clear and focused. The same was true of his questions about the role of race and police violence.
When the subject was Trump, he was even better. For instance, on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, Holt pushed him several times. He pushed Trump again on the latter’s phony claim to have opposed the war in Iraq. (His only failure in the moment was not to read Trump his own words there.)
As the debate wore on, Holt got firmer and more direct. The first sign of this was during his foray into Trump’s birtherism. The way Holt phrased the subject properly placed it in the context of race. “We are talking about racial healing,” Holt stated, referring back to the previous discussion. The implication was clear: Trump didn’t just need to explain his changing position on birtherism. He also needed to explain how he could claim to end racial problems when he had made a direct attack of the first black president’s legitimacy.
During the final two questions of the night, Holt raised other important issues. Along with racism, misogyny has been a driving source of Trump’s appeal and persona. It was thus more than proper that Holt brought up the question, nastily broached by Trump in the past, of whether Hillary Clinton had the right look to be president. Some conservatives may claim that such questions were aimed more at Trump than Clinton, and to some degree they were. But there is hardly any alternative in an election where the biggest question before voters is just what kind of man is running to be our next president, and what varieties of bigotry and hatred does he subscribe to.
Still, Holt saved his best for last. Donald Trump’s candidacy represents a threat to the democratic order in a myriad number of ways. Should he win, the cost to the country’s fabric will be severe. But the same could be true even if he loses, because Trump has hinted that if he were to “lose” it would only be because the election was stolen. (By urban minorities, naturally.) Holt’s effort to get Trump on record, in front of millions of people, was thus important: Would Trump, he asked, accept the results of the election were Clinton to win? After talking around the question for the duration of his time, Trump, pressed one more time by Holt, said he would. (He did so again after the debate.) Even if he finds an inevitable way to weasel out of it should he lose, Holt’s pursuit of the question remains important.
The media may not have caused Donald Trump, but it has abetted his rise. The most it can do now—indeed, what it must do now—is make sure he is challenged over the final six weeks of this long, dishonest campaign. Monday night Lester Holt made a good, admittedly tardy start.