Good Reads: From an Iran negotiator, to press freedom, to Amazon’s rise

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a profile of Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, freedom of the press and the White House, today's lessons from the working relationship between President Reagan and Tip O'Neill, a profile of Amazon's founder, and how Life magazine came to have the photos of JFK's assassination.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani waves after swearing in at parliament.

When the United States begins talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear program in November, the lead US negotiator will be Wendy Sherman, a former social worker and Democratic political activist profiled by Yochi Dreazen in Foreign Policy.

“Sherman faces the extraordinarily difficult task of determining whether the moderate tone of Iran’s new leader, Hasan Rouhani, means that Tehran is genuinely prepared to open its nuclear sites to international inspection and halt its enrichment of certain types of uranium or is simply trying to wring concessions from the West,” notes Mr. Dreazen.

To her role as undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Ms. Sherman brings experience from the 1990s negotiation with North Korea about limiting development and sale of its long-range missiles. That came after a stint running Maryland’s child welfare office and heading up Emily’s List, an organization that funds women running for office as pro-choice Democrats.

A ‘control freak’ administration

The Obama administration came to office proclaiming its commitment to transparency and accountability. But many journalists are alarmed by the White House’s efforts to curb the routine disclosure of information in the name of protecting national security, saying it hinders efforts to expose potential government misdeeds.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. studied the Obama administration’s relations with the press for the Committee to Protect Journalists and wrote about his findings in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. Given the Obama administration’s use of the 1917 Espionage Act to identify and prosecute government officials who talk to reporters, “journalists who cover national security are facing vast and unprecedented challenges in their efforts to hold the government accountable to its citizens,” Mr. Downie writes. “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I have covered,” David Sanger, a 20-year veteran of The New York Times, told Downie.

Lessons from Reagan and O’Neill

The ugly process leading to a temporary deal in Congress to fund the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling prompted Charlie Cook (no relation), a respected nonpartisan political analyst, to analyze in the National Journal what has changed in Washington since Republican Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill was speaker of the House.

“[T]here are some current members of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, who would have been a credit to any Congress … but that list is small and over the last 30 years is getting steadily smaller,” writes Mr. Cook. “Increasingly we are seeing more members … who seem to have little sense of customs, traditions, and responsibilities of the institutions that they have been given the honor or privilege to serve.”

Among the notable aspects of the Reagan-O’Neill relationship, Cook argues, were a respect for positions of authority, a preference to play by the rules, a respect for election results, and the ability to talk despite disagreements.

How Amazon became the everything store

In 18 years founder Jeff Bezos has built into a store that sells $75 billion worth of merchandise, rivals Apple with its Kindle e-readers, competes with IBM as a data service provider, sells both diapers and high-end art, and is expected to announce a set-top box for televisions. Along the way, Amazon turned Mr. Bezos into a billionaire.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Brad Stone reports that all of this was not accomplished solely by charm. Bezos, known for his uproarious laugh, nevertheless favors a notoriously confrontational management style and frequently flies into rages that staffers call “nutters.” Through it all he has remained singularly focused on customer satisfaction. Bezos is known for e-mailing customer complaints to managers with the addition of one character – a question mark. “When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark email, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking time bomb,” Mr. Stone writes.

A witness at JFK’s assassination

With the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, Americans will once again be exposed to the iconic pictures taken by Dallas garment factory co-owner Abraham Zapruder. He was an 8-mm movie enthusiast who happened to be filming when the president’s motorcade made its fateful trip.

Former Life magazine editor Richard Stolley recounts in Time magazine the mad scramble by journalists to acquire the rights to publish the sometimes gory but historic images and why Life magazine won that battle. Life was still in its heyday and could afford to bid $50,000 for print rights and later offer $100,000 more for TV rights. But other news organizations also were prepared to make big offers. Zapruder’s business partner told Stolley he prevailed because of his considerate treatment of Zapruder and his office assistant on a day when other reporters were being extremely aggressive. According to Zapruder’s partner, Life got the film, “because you were a gentleman.”

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