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What Does a U.S. Ambassador Really Do?

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In the movies, U.S. ambassadors often appear to come to the aid of jailed foreigners in inhospitable prisons. In the press, they’ve been vilified for not spending all of their time in the country they’ve been assigned to represent or for not being fluent in the language. Some critics have even referred to their appointment as a kind of payola scheme, with positions being awarded in exchange for campaign contributions to the sitting president.

Ambassadors for the United States seem to wear a variety of faces, but which of them is accurate?

“It varies widely from country to country,” Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and current professor of international affairs at Penn State University, tells mental_floss. “France will be very different from Russia. But generally, ambassadors have two functions, one internal and one external.”

The internal function is managing the U.S. embassy itself and all of its employees, which can number from one to 1000 and involve several representatives from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and other government branches. The external function is dealing with the native government, missionaries, and local press in representing the President of the United States.

“You explain what Washington is thinking,” Jett explains, “and explain to Washington what the other government is thinking. You have a lot of people wanting a lot of your time.”

For Jett, that meant getting involved in Mozambique’s highly volatile civil war that resulted in the country's first free and democratic election in 1994. He had to live up to his diplomat label, encouraging democracy while being careful not to agitate the sitting government with criticism as the press swarmed around him.

On one occasion in Peru, Jett arrived for a social engagement and left early. A half-hour later, terrorists from the country's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the event and kept hostages—including several of Jett's embassy employees—for 126 days.

Those incidents cast a long shadow over the stereotype that ambassadors do little but arrange parties and entertain foreign dignitaries. “The Middle East is hard,” Jett says. “Pakistan, places like that.” Depending on the conditions of the territory in question, ambassadors may even be eligible for danger pay on top of their regular salary. “It can be as little as 5 percent [extra] or up to 40 percent. If you’re going into a place with malaria or what’s called a 'hardship post'—a place with a threat of terrorism—you’ll be paid more than if you were going to the Caribbean.”

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Jett was a career foreign affairs officer, rising through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and later a Senior Director of African Affairs before securing a post as an ambassador, the top-ranking diplomat. Traditionally, career employees will make up roughly 70 percent of the 180-odd ambassador posts at any given time, with the remaining 30 percent filled by political appointees who contributed to a presidential campaign or have another personal connection to the president.

While these individuals typically get assigned low-risk posts in cushy, tourist-friendly places like Europe or the Caribbean and the standard free lodging, there’s still opportunity for them to risk embarrassment. Mark Austad, Ronald Reagan’s appointee to Norway, was fired for overt womanizing; other appointees quizzed by the Senate before their official hiring have expressed only minimal fluency in the requisite foreign language. In one instance, one wannabe Ambassador to Argentina admitted he had never actually been to the country.

The argument for such reciprocation is that donors are typically wealthy and can afford to bolster weak Congressional spending when it comes to an embassy’s "representational entertaining"—the bureaucratic term for "lavish parties." But Jett feels that it’s a poor excuse for a tired and unfair system. “We need capable, competent people who speak the language and can carry out the job, regardless of whether they’re rich,” he says.

Ambassadors typically resign following a new president taking over the Oval Office. Appointees typically slip back into the private sector, while career diplomats either return to Washington or consider another ambassadorship.

As for those dramatic interventions on behalf of jailed Americans: Don’t expect to see Jett or his peers stage a spirited rally on your behalf.

 “We don’t have the ability to bring that kind of pressure,” he says. “You’re subject to the laws of that area. We can get you the names of some lawyers. Maybe some better food. That's about it.”

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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