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 Are Marathons 26.2 Miles Long?

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iStock/ZamoraA

What's the reason behind the cursed distance of a marathon? The mythical explanation is that, around 490 BCE, the courier Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to delivers news that the Greeks had trounced the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The trouble with that explanation, however, is that Pheidippides would have only covered a distance of approximately 25 miles. So what accounts for the extra 1.2 miles?

When the modern marathon appeared in the late 19th century, the race distance was inconsistent. During the first Olympic games in 1896, runners jogged along Pheidippides’s old route for a distance of 40,000 meters—or 24.85 miles. (That race, by the way, was won by a Greek postal worker.) The next Olympic games saw the distance bumped to a pinch over 25 miles. And while subsequent marathons floated around the 25 mile mark, no standard distance was ever codified.

Then the Olympics came to London. In 1908, the marathon, which stretched between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium in London, lasted 26.2 miles—all for the benefit of England's royal family.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Like previous races, the original event was supposed to cover a ballpark of 25 miles. The royal family, however, had other plans: They wanted the event to start directly in front of Windsor Castle—as the story goes, the royal children wanted to see the start of the race from the castle nursery. Officials duly agreed and moved the starting line, tacking on an extra mile to the race.

As for the pesky final 0.2? That was the royal family’s fault, too. The finish line was extended an extra 385 yards so the race would end in front of the royal family’s viewing box.

Those extra 1.2 miles proved to be a curse. The race’s leader, an Italian pastry chef named Dorando Pietri, collapsed multiple times while running toward the finish line and had to be helped to his feet. One of the people who came to his aid was a journalist named Arthur Conan Doyle. Afterward, Conan Doyle wrote about Pietri's late-race struggles for the Daily Mail, saying, "Through the doorway crawled a little, exhausted man ... He trotted for a few exhausted yards like a man galvanized into life; then the trot expired into a slow crawl, so slow that the officials could scarcely walk slow enough to keep beside him."

After the London Olympics, the distance of most marathons continued to hover between 24 and 26 miles, but it seems that Conan Doyle's writing may have brought special attention to the distance of 26.2, endowing it with a legendary "breaker-of-men" reputation. Indeed, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation convened to standardize the marathon, they chose the old London distance of 26 miles and 385 yards—or 26.219 miles.

Writing for Reuters, Steven Downes concluded that, "the marathon race may have been as much a Conan Doyle creation as Sherlock Holmes."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Are the Santa Ana Winds?

Satellite image of Santa Ana winds in Southern California.
Satellite image of Santa Ana winds in Southern California.
NASA/JPL-Caltech, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Two massive wildfires burning in California have now become the state's deadliest and most destructive. In Northern California, the Camp Fire near Chico decimated the town of Paradise and killed 29 people as of November 12, 2018. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire started near Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles, and has torched hundreds of homes in Malibu and other communities.

The National Weather Service says that a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and gusty Santa Ana winds have created perfect conditions for cataclysmic fires.

What are these Santa Ana winds and why do they help create fire conditions?

Santa Anas are dry, warm (often hot) winds that blow westward through Southern California toward the coast. They're usually seasonal, and typically occur between October and March and peak in December. They originate when high pressure systems form over the high-elevation deserts of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. Air from the system flows clockwise, so winds on the southern side of the system push west towards the Pacific Ocean.

The winds pass over the mountains between coastal California and the inland deserts. As they flow downslope, the air gets compressed and rises in temperature at a rate of almost 29 degrees per mile of descent. While air's temperature rises, its relative humidity drops, commonly to less than 20 percent and sometimes to even less than 10 percent. The winds also increase dramatically in speed when they're forced through narrow mountain passes and canyons.

By the time the winds hit the coastal areas, they're very dry, warm, and moving fast. This is what makes them problematic. They dry out vegetation, making it better fuel for a fire—and once a fire starts, the winds fan the flames and help spread them.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

So, why are the winds called "Santa Ana winds"?

"While the origin and cause of the Santa Ana winds are not in dispute," writes Robert Fovell, currently a professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at SUNY Albany, "the origin of the name is."

One fairly popular explanation is that the name comes from a Native American word, santana, which means "devil wind" and was corrupted into Santa Ana. But according to Fovell, the Los Angeles Times, and other sources, no one has found any words similar to santana with that definition in any of the native languages of the area.

Another explanation is that the winds were named for Mexican politician and general Antonio López de Santa Anna, possibly in reference to dust storms kicked up by the cavalry he commanded. Santa Anna never operated in southern California, though, and spelled his name with two n's. The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this etymology as having no foundation.

In the early 1930s, an article in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings suggested that the name might have originated with early Spanish explorers, who had a "custom of naming places and events for the saint's day on which they happened or were discovered." In this case, they might have noted the winds on St. Anne's day and named them for her. This also seems unlikely to historians, though, because a few Santa Ana winds, experienced for the first time, probably wouldn't have warranted naming—and the winds aren't recorded with any name until much later, anyway. St. Anne's feast day is also July 26, when a Santa Ana wind is unlikely.

The most common and accepted etymology, says Fovell, is that the winds' name simply derives from the Santa Ana canyon in Orange County.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

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