Forget bias – Holt showed no understanding of the office itself
Forget the bias. Lester Holt’s moderating the presidential debate was an intellectual disaster.
Here was a moderator who had no depth of knowledge about the presidency. He did not research the way in which the presidency functions as an office and has done so throughout history. His questions could have been written by any community college sophomore. The last one – “will you support your opponent if he/she wins” – was a throwaway. Who is going to stand up there and say, no, we are going to grab our Bibles and our guns and take to the hills to create an insurrection?
Yet, aside from the criticism of bias, there has been sparse criticism of Holt as a professional. His colleagues seem to be falling over each other to say what a good job he did. Apparently, in journalism, form triumphs over substance.
What qualified Holt to be the moderator? Traveling the world and reporting from its distant corners does not make one an expert on the presidency or domestic and foreign policy. A passing acquaintance with current events is not a substitute for a contextual understanding of the office and its constitutional constraints, nor, for that matter are good looks, a pleasant voice, or a professional demeanor. Give Holt high marks on the last three.
The power of the presidency is basically the power to persuade, the power of leadership, yet there were no questions about the presidential style the candidates would use. How would they exercise the personal power of the office, the need to persuade, the need to find compromise and embrace conciliation?
The American presidency is said to be a unique office, unlike any other, limited by constitutional boundaries, challenged by other branches of government, and yet in recent years, in the interests of pragmatism, presidents have pushed back on these boundaries through the use of executive orders or executive memoranda and by making foreign policy “deals” that allegedly did not require the advice and consent of the Senate.
This change has profound implications for the nature of our democracy. How does each of the candidates view those changes? Does not the electorate have a right to know how the candidates feel about the interaction that is supposed to take place between the president and the congress within the legal limitations of the office? Has the Obama administration set a good or questionable precedent in its expansion of the office, and how would each of the candidates view his footsteps?
Maybe such questions are not just too difficult for the moderator, but also too difficult for the two candidates seeking office. Still, it would appear that they describe the very essence of how our unique democracy is supposed to function as a system of checks and balances.
Beyond that, it is the responsibility of journalists to bring the conversation up to a higher standard, to challenge the citizenry, and to instill in them the motivation to reach another level of understanding. None of this was present.
In Lester Holt, I am not seeing Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or Charlie Rose. Perhaps Rose would have been the most qualified of all to be a moderator, an interviewer who, in the break of a spoken paragraph, can move the discussion through a creative segue from human interest to topics that challenge the mind.
Holt was not working with the best candidates. We need to give him that. Neither candidate in their answers sought some sublime form of discourse about the public law context of the most important office in the world. But then, it was also Holt’s responsibility to move them in that direction. And that he did not do.