Pots & pans: Lester Holt is center stage at presidential debate, too
Pressure is on for him to moderate perhaps the most-watched debate ever
In the run up to Monday night’s presidential debate at New York’s Hofstra University, much has been said and written about expectations, great and small, for the two candidates: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, will be closely watched for instances in which she connects emotionally with voters, whatever that means. Trump, a businessman and campaign provocateur who seemingly has had no trouble connecting with his supporters, will be looked at to see whether he can appear presidential, whatever that means.
But Lester Holt, a crisp, no-nonsense NBC News anchor, will be studied for his performance, too. Will he be well-prepared? Will he maintain control while giving the debaters equal opportunities to make their cases for president? Will he display a pleasing blend of seriousness and openness?
Further, Holt, an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years on the air, faces the added pressure of the “black first.” He is the first black man to be a solo anchor for a network nightly news program. Consequently, the 57-year-old California native knows that some viewers will root for him to succeed because of his race. Unfortunately, put off by his race, some people will hope that he fails too.
Above all, Holt should seek to ask questions whose answers will give voters a clearer picture of the respective candidates, who they are and how they seek to lead the nation in challenging times.
That won’t be easy. Both candidates are likely to attempt to use the questions they are asked to repeat their talking points. And each candidate will seek to avoid making a gaffe or something that could be presented as a gaffe as the campaign, too often covered like a horse race, heads down the home stretch.
No matter what happens during the 90-minute debate, as soon as it ends, partial observers will throw the proceedings into the spin cycle on cable TV and social media. That’s why I turn off presidential debates immediately after they end. I then take a few minutes to think about what I saw, how I perceived the candidates, what struck me as the important and revealing moments. I want to be clear in my thoughts before I allow the professional manipulations to seek to tell me what I saw and what to make of it.
Not that journalists don’t seek to come through in the clutch, just as our sports heroes do.
For example, in sports, reporters, writers and announcers know the importance of playing their own big games while covering their sports. Some, in magic moments, produce enduring and defining catchphrases like the one created by the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy. His “curse of the Bambino” captured the seemingly mystical futility that resulted in the Boston Red Sox going from 1918 to 2004 without a World Series victory, an apparent punishment from the sports gods for selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920.
Further, play-by-play announcers such as Al Michaels have uttered words that loom as majestically as the games they covered. During the 1980 Olympics, Michaels used just six words to summarize the delicious surprise of the USA team defeating the Soviet Olympic hockey team: “Do you believe in miracles, yes.”
In more serious circumstances during the 1950s, TV’s Edward R. Murrow produced a commentary about the scourge of McCarthyism that echoes to this day, “We must not confuse decent with disloyalty.” And in 1963, Walter Cronkite took off his glasses while announcing the assassination of President Kennedy: a small gesture that forever frames the tragedy and sadness of the event.
Despite the drama and stagecraft that often attends broadcast and cable news coverage, responsible journalists and even the biggest stars hope to avoid becoming part of the story. But on the debate stage at Hofstra, that’s going to be very hard to do for Holt to do; he might just have to lean into it.
The whole world might not watch the debate. But its importance will be global and potentially defining for Clinton, Trump and Holt.
Now, it could be that Holt will succeed in walking the narrow line between asking Clinton and Trump probing and insistent questions and being perceived as badgering them.
Perhaps he’ll get both candidates to reveal telling aspects about themselves, their policies and their worldviews. Perhaps Holt will emerge from the debates with both candidates and their handlers praising him for his professionalism and fairness. Perhaps he’ll emerge without being assailed on social media for being too hard on one candidate or not hard enough on the other. Perhaps the way he moderates the debates will be held up to future moderators as a textbook example of the way things are supposed to be done.
Do you believe in miracles?