The most anticipated presidential debate in recent memory succeeded in presenting to the American electorate a panorama the distinctions between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Much of the heated back and forth between the candidates was due to pointed questioning from NBC’s Lester Holt.
Some will complain Holt didn’t ask Clinton enough about her emails or about the Clinton Foundation. Others will admonish him for disappearing at times when Trump began to state overt falsehoods.
The email and Clinton Foundation controversies have been litigated over and over in Congress, on cable news shows and online for months on end. Holt and his prep team rightly found no value in that line of questioning.
There were times during the debate when Holt asked for specifics about the candidates’ answers: “Tell us specifically how you would prevent homegrown attacks by American citizens, Mr. Trump?”
After a hard-to-follow answer mostly attacking Clinton and President Obama on their Middle East policy, and no attempt to answer Holt’s question, there was little a moderator could do without stalling the conversation.
Holt’s role fell between facilitator and very-mild fact-checker.
In fact, he let Clinton do much of the fact-checking, as she pointed viewers to her Web site, which was actively reviewing Donald Trump’s statements for accuracy. Donald Trump interjected, also telling viewers to visit his campaign’s page, with the unintended consequence of too much traffic shutting down the site for a time.
The few moments when Holt did actively fact check or confront Trump, the Republican nominee had no interest in accepting fact. He rejected the claim that he initially supported the war in Iraq, which was pointed out by both Holt and Clinton. In this case, it is difficult to understand where Trump was coming from, as the evidence is easy to verify.
One of the most confusing and ultimately worrying moments of the debate came during a discussion of stop-and-frisk. Trump touted the expansion of the policing approach, to which Holt responded: “Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.” Again, the veracity of this statement has never been challenged.
Trump responded with: “No, you're wrong. It went before a judge, who was a very against-police judge.” In fact, Trump was wrong; Holt was right. Trump’s ease in meddling with fact and figures is troublesome; it raises real questions about his ability to approach issues rationally.
Holt’s quiet, yet assertive performance as moderator let the candidates show their true colors. Clinton was calm, composed and at times amused with the bluster of her opponent. Trump was loud, often rude and petulant; he was generally opposed to accepting generic and evidence-based fact.
Clinton has been deemed the winner of the debate by a number of publications. I would argue that Lester Holt, while he could have done more to press both candidates for specifics and to get them to actually answer some questions that went by the wayside, was also a winner.