AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- New Zealand is about as far from the Washington Beltway, physically and socially, as you can get and still be on planet Earth.
They don't care a whit for status here, and not that much for money or power. They love the outdoors and with good reason, for this is arguably the most beautiful place in the world. Kiwis say "no worries" instead of "you're welcome," and they would rather charge you less for something if they deem that fair.
Maybe I had to get this far away to see Washington for what it is these days: the world capital of small-minded, cowardly, selfish thinking.
I tried to avert my eyes from the pathetic political non-responses to the mass murder in Connecticut -- the reflexive knuckling under to the gun lobby -- and from the pantomime of fiscal statesmanship on display in Congress, especially by a Republican Party in thrall to the past.
But no matter how divertingly gorgeous the scenery here, I could not avoid seeing us the way others now see us: as a global leader that has become shockingly unable to handle its duties -- much less serve as a supposed beacon of civilization.
Now I'm headed back to Washington knowing what I had guessed when I left town: that the so-called fiscal cliff "talks" would still be going when I got home. I'm returning with useful, nagging questions ringing in my ears from Kiwis and visitors alike.
The Korean bond trader from Hong Kong wanted to know why America could not manage to pass a government budget -- ever.
The Maori tribal leader wanted to know how we could lecture smaller countries (such as New Zealand) on their fiscal probity when the United States was $16 trillion in arrears. "That's a lot of money, mate," he said.
The American expat who was a management consultant in Shanghai wanted me to explain how President Barack Obama could have won reelection handily and yet remain unable to break Washington gridlock.
A British couple couldn't believe that I could tolerate living in a country with at least as many guns as people (not to mention some 2 million prison inmates).
When I opened The New Zealand Herald, I saw that a leading columnist in the country was calling our president names, accusing him of weakness in the face of the powerful U.S. gun lobby. (He was right.)
But mostly everyone, Kiwi and tourist alike, in this lovely, sensible and family-oriented country wanted to extend condolences over the loss of the likes of Sandy Hook elementary student Emilie Parker, the epitome of innocence, to a madman's bullets. Sadly, a month after Obama's triumph at the polls, he was not the most familiar American face in newspapers and magazines across the South Pacific. For a long stretch of this month, Emilie was.
Behind the courteous sympathy was something else: a note of pity, a sense that poor America, it can't help being the land of psychopathic mayhem.
And on the fiscal cliff, they thought: Poor America, Obama's a good guy so why can't he run things? What kind of system elects a guy but doesn't let him lead?
I thanked everyone for the sentiments and analyses and questions. I was on vacation, so I resisted trying to answer any of them. But I confess that as an American I was embarrassed and even defensive.
Want to talk about societal brutality? What about China? They kidnap little boys by the tens of thousands. Their business ethics don't exist. As for the budget, what about Europe? What about Greece, Italy and Spain? Their balance sheets are worse than ours.
None of those rationalizations work, of course. We are supposed to know what we are doing. Great powers are feared or loved or emulated. Perhaps China is on the way to being one of those.
Great powers aren't supposed to be pitied. Right now, we are. It's not a good feeling. Time to go home.