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All eyes on Lester Holt as he moderates debate

Lester Holt, anchor of

Lester Holt, anchor of "NBC Nightly News," participates on an election panel in Manhattan on Sept. 30, 2015. Credit: Getty Images for AWXII / Dia Dipasupil

Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” assumes the most visible role of a long career Monday night, as moderator of the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Hofstra’s David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.

Holt, 57, has spent much of that career in local news in New York and Chicago, and at NBC News, which he joined in 2000. He was named interim anchor of “Nightly” in February 2015, after Brian Williams was suspended for embellishing his role in the early days of the Iraq War, and was named permanent replacement June 18, 2015. By contrast, Holt has never had a significant controversy during 35 years in front of or behind the camera — unusual for any prominent TV news personality — which colleagues attribute to both style and temperament.

NBC News declined to make executives available for comment, but a longtime Holt colleague — who asked for anonymity, citing the network’s pre-debate press blackout — said, “He’s always been a great guy and pleasure to work with, and one of the few people in this business you never hear anything bad about.”

“Off the air, Lester is exactly as he appears on the air which is to say he is hardworking, well-liked, smart and very steady,” said Neal Shapiro, president of WNET/13 and former president of NBC News. “ I never seen him lose his composure and I have never heard him talk about his own political views.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates selects moderators based on a handful of criteria, including the moderator’s familiarity with issues. Each must also have “extensive” live TV experience. Including his recent stint this summer reporting on the Olympics from Rio de Janeiro, Holt also anchored NBC’s prime-time coverage of both conventions and has conducted dozens of interviews with candidates during this political season, including a handful with both Clinton and Trump. On Jan. 17, he was principal moderator — along with Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd — of the Democratic debate between Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in Charleston, S.C., Monday will be his first presidential debate.

After joining MSNBC and NBC News, Holt became “Weekend Today” co-anchor in 2003, following the death of then co-anchor David Bloom. In 2007, he was named anchor of the weekend edition of “Nightly.” He has also been “Dateline” anchor since 2011.

Holt has been married to Carol Hagen-Holt, a former flight attendant, for 33 years, and has two grown sons: Stefan, the co-anchor of WNBC/4’s 4 p.m. broadcast; and Cameron Holt, a trader with Morgan Stanley in Manhattan.

The Marin County, California native, attended California State University in Sacramento, worked briefly in local radio, then, in 1981, joined WCBS/2 in New York as a reporter. After a brief move to Los Angeles’ KNXT — later renamed KCBS — he returned to Ch. 2 as a reporter and weekend anchor. In 1986, he joined WBBM in Chicago, where he became a prominent local anchor. Eric Ober, former CBS News president and head of the CBS station division during Holt’s years there, said, “he does his homework, talks to lots of people and really prepares well.”

Ober, who now owns a TV station in Pensacola, Fla., added, “That will stand him in good stead Monday.”


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