Nick Dames in The Atlantic:
This past september in Des Moines, President Obama conducted an unusual conversation with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. The transcript, published in The New York Review of Books, touched on high-minded topics such as the troubled relationship between Christianity and democracy, the durability of small-town values, and the importance and fragility of public institutions. The discussion was pitched abstractly, never descending into specifics that might inspire significant disagreement. Still, it was an impressive display of two very different minds—the guardedly optimistic leader habitually wary of strident assertions, the writer candidly admitting to darker worries—trying to think through, collaboratively, what it feels like to be an American now.
You might ask, why a novelist? The event had a touchingly antique feel: Think of Hyannis Port in 1960, when the presidential candidate and senator John F. Kennedy charmed Norman Mailer in order to rouse the discouraged liberal elites who were Mailer’s audience; or Manhattan in 1963, when Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to convene a private discussion on race that turned out to be an explosive exchange rather than a quiet policy debate. Obama’s motive cannot have been to seduce Robinson with his glamour or to solicit her as the representative of a constituency; novelists no longer command that kind of on-the-ground authority. His choice of a novelist suggests considerations both broader and narrower. Obama addressed Robinson not as a shaper of opinion but as someone with powers linked to her vocation, with a stature he sees as unique to a writer of fiction. He conferred with her as a specialist in empathy.