Lester Holt/ AP photo
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced enormous scrutiny during Monday's presidential showdown. But let's not forget the pressure on Lester Holt.
In most political debates, good moderators strive to emulate sports referees: Don't steal any headlines away from the game and hope that the audience can barely remember your name in the morning.
This event, like most in this wacky political season, was different. Numbers for the prime-time confrontation were expected to challenge Super Bowl ratings, putting the NBC News anchor under a hotter-than-usual spotlight.
Go too easy on either candidate and you're Matt Lauer. Come across as too tough and you're Megyn Kelly. Holt even faced criticism before he got to Hofstra University by none other than Trump himself who wondered aloud if Holt could be fair considering he's a Democrat (in actuality, Holt is a registered Republican).
In other words, Holt faced what amounted to an unwinnable situation and the fact that he came out without any significant gaffes is probably the closest thing to a victory he could have hoped for.
Holt walked the balance between letting the candidates go after each other and preventing a schoolyard brawl, gently reminding the candidates when they had gone over their allotted time and only admonishing the crowd a couple times for letting their partisan flags fly.
He allowed for interruptions -- to a point. When he reminded Trump that it was Clinton's turn to speak, the Republican candidate interjected three more times. Holt let it go.
At the same time, he pressed the candidates with short, pertinent and direct questions, a task that may seem obvious, but can often be overlooked by media journalists who forget that they're not the reason folks are tuning in. When a candidate dodged a question, Holt let them know he was on to him and her, but didn't make a production over it.
Some will grumble that Holt could have pressed Trump more on whether he said Clinton didn't have the "look" or the "stamina" of a president, but at least the journalist brought up the subject in the first place. Holt drew a little fire from the businessman when he tried to press the issue, and decided to back off. A more aggressive approach might have worked on "Meet the Press," but under the circumstances, Holt made the right call, albeit one that robbed TV viewers from additional fireworks.
The late-night hosts, many of which went live after the debate, poked fun at Holt, particular the "Daily Show"'s Trevor Noah who joked that when the two candidates started going at it, Holt was "just eating popcorn like everybody else."
Sure, in the end, Holt was more spectator than superstar. Considering the importance of the event, that approach was more than appropriate.