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I've noticed Howard Fineman's absence as a frequent guest on MSNBC lately. No wonder: the Huffington editorial director went to New Zealand on vacation. While there, he was exposed to several views of the U.S. from a place about as far from the Beltway as one can get. As a result, his first piece upon returning he calls "View From Abroad: Poor America, Undone By Political Gridlock, Gun Violence."

Poor America.....there's implicit pity there. Fineman may have been trying to "get away from it all," but his journalistic antennae were not in total retraction mode. He's home disgusted, yet not surprised, at the vibes he felt while in NZ.

Maybe I had to get this far away to see Washington for what it is: 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 CT -- 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. 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 beacon of civilization. I'm headed back to Washington knowing what I had guessed when I left: 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....

Here are some of the frank, sincere questions Fineman encountered:

...a bond trader wanted to know why America couldn't manage to pass a government budget--ever. The Maori tribal leader wanted to know how we could lecture smaller countries (such as NZ) on fiscal probity when the U.S. was $16 trillion in arrears. ("That's a lot of money, mate!"). A management consultant wanted me to explain how Obama could have won re-election so handily, but yet remain unable to crack Washington gridlock. What kind of system elects a guy, but then turns right around and doesn't let him lead? One British couple asked how in the world I could tolerate life where there are as many or more guns as people and where prisons bulge with over 2 million inmates.

I thanked everyone for the sentiments 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. We are supposed to know what we are doing. Great powers are feared or loved or emulated. Great powers aren't supposed to be pitied. Right now, we are. It's not a good feeling. Time to go home.
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