The last question at the second presidential debate forced Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to compliment each other – a rare occurrence. (The Washington Post)

Overnight Karl Becker became a national hero.

The 49-year-old sales director and father of two teenagers closed Sunday’s bitter presidential debate by asking Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to name a trait they respected in the other. The live audience broke protocol and applauded. At home, viewers on social media, including several celebrities, started calling him a hero, the debate’s MVP and declaring him their real choice for president.

Becker, an undecided voter from St. Louis, has, like many Americans, felt fairly pessimistic about this election, but if he had the unique opportunity to ask the candidates a question he wanted it to be for his kids.

He thought about his 18-year-old daughter, Darcy, who will vote in her first presidential election this year. He’s told her, and his 15-year-old son, Shane, how much this choice matters to their futures. Whoever wins will be president as they transition from being teens to adults.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Becker recalled how he received his debate packet Friday afternoon, but said it wasn’t until Saturday night that he started formulating the now famous question. He could ask about Trump’s lewd video or Clinton’s Wall Street speeches, but he knew those topics would be well covered. He wanted to see the candidates as people. And he wanted to force them to see the other as a human being.

“How about a question that would show some humanity, some compassion,” he said he thought as he drafted it. “Could they possibly answer that question without going to talking points that they’d already been briefed on?”


Karl Becker asks Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to say something nice about the other. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Sunday night, with the debate already running over time, Becker noticed some of the producers turn their eyes to him. Then moderator Martha Raddatz said they’d “sneaked in one more question.”

Becker stood and asked: “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

“Well, I certainly will [go first], because I think that’s a very fair and important question,” Clinton said. “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.”

Then Trump gave his response: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.”

And those were the last words spoken at the second presidential debate.

Becker said he was satisfied with both answers.

“I think they were heartfelt and being taken off guard, they had to dig deeply and quickly to answer that question,” he said.

But even ringside seats to the debate didn’t help him make up his mind. He’s still undecided about who he will vote for, or if he will vote at all. He met them both on Sunday night and described them as nice, driven people who want to win.

Becker’s call for civility felt like a deep exhale after holding your breath for 90 minutes. It touched a nerve in Americans starving for a glimpse of humanity in what has been an ugly campaign. He said he was shocked when the audience broke into applause when he finished reading his question.

“I can only speculate that I asked a question that was completely out of the norm and perhaps it’s a question many Americans have wanted to ask,” he said. “I asked the question to be representative of my kids, but it’s taken on a life of its own. If it can help bring about some type of dialogue among individuals at lunch today or even bigger than that if the third debate turns into something more substantial . . . as opposed to the argumentative nature that has permeated the campaign for a year.”

Becker is pleased that the question seemed to inspire people. He said he hopes it might even serve to help not turn off kids from voting. But of all the accolades that poured in since Sunday night, these are the two that matter most:

“I told my kids I just wanted them to be proud of me,” he said, “and apparently they are.”