By this late date, the veterans of the Clinton White House have had plenty of experience living on the edge. Never before, however, have they chosen to hurl themselves off it with such abandon.
It was gleeful abandon for some, terrified abandon for most, and, arguably, reckless abandon for all of them. In any event, the adrenaline frenzy that overtook President Clinton's traveling party in New Zealand today was begun by Douglas B. Sosnik, the White House senior adviser.
Sosnik launched himself off a 150-foot bridge over the Kawarau River, plunged for several seconds, then stopped a few feet short of the water and bounced back up when the bungee cord attached to his legs worked as advertised.
Minutes after the unflappable Sosnik's performance, the flappable Gene Sperling, Clinton's economic adviser, found himself on the ledge. Witnesses said a nauseated look of impending doom painted his face. It was gone moments later, as an exhilarated Sperling described his free fall.
The news that a top economic adviser to the president has hurled himself off a bridge is the kind of thing that can rattle the financial markets. Sperling joked that it was unclear whether stocks would plunge on the news that he was falling, or on the news that he had bounced back up.
Sperling's example proved decisive. Next thing you know, dozens of people in the entourage that accompanied Clinton to the Asia-Pacific economic forum here in New Zealand -- from young aides like Kris Engskov and Elizabeth Newman to veteran White House reporters like CBS's Bill Plante -- were standing on the bridge, letting jolly New Zealanders attach the cord that would be their sole link to life.
The president himself spent a day of downtime on the golf course in this spectacular mountain resort town (before news of Hurricane Floyd's approach caused him to accelerate his return to Washington); daughter Chelsea went for a run. But nearly everyone else traveling with him, including many Secret Service agents, spent the day in search of the extreme experiences for which Queenstown is attracting an international reputation.
There were two obvious conclusions to be drawn from this. One is that peer pressure is a powerful force of human motivation. The other is that New Zealand must have different rules about personal-injury lawsuits.
National security adviser Sandy Berger, for instance, did not go bungee jumping. But he did indulge himself in one of Queenstown's other famous attractions: jet boats, whose pilots specialize in navigating the rapids of Shotover Canyon gorge at screaming speeds, intentionally passing within a foot or so of the canyon walls. If anything, the activity seems more foolhardy than bungee jumping, since the ride lasts much longer (about 30 minutes) and there seems to be much greater potential for misjudgment -- several of the boat-pilot dudes seemed too young to be Generation X.
"I've had more rock hits than Elvis," said the operator of Berger's boat.
But rational assessment of risks and benefits is not what Queenstown is all about. Several people (this reporter among them) arrived at the Kawarau Bridge intending merely to watch, not to jump.
What, after all, is the point? Of course the odds are that the cord won't fail. But what if it did? It would be an utterly ignoble death, proving nothing other than that Charles Darwin was onto something with his theory about natural selection.
What tourists don't realize, however, is that if they show up at the bridge remotely entertaining the possibility of a jump -- even in a tiny corner of the subconscious -- the debate as a practical matter is already over, especially when other people you know start to leap. The fear of looking wimpish overcomes the fear of leaping.
So you put your money down. A jump, with T-shirt, photos and video, costs about $75 (though the operator cut the cost by two-thirds today for the visiting Americans). Next come the scales -- operators adjust the cord for your weight.
Heavy-metal music throbs during the wait on the bridge. Then, when the moment comes, the jump operators put a towel around your legs and wrap that with canvas webbing. The bungee cord, made of thin rubber strands, is attached with carabiners to the webbing. With your feet tied together, you have to hop carefully to the edge.
There is a last moment of rationalization. Owner A.J. Hackett, who claims to have invented the business of commercial bungee jumping at this bridge more than a decade ago, has launched thousands of tourists and never lost one (though people reportedly have died in bungee accidents at a nearby bridge, nearly twice as high). But with a line of other easy marks waiting, there is no time to brood. Look out to the horizon, not down at the water, the bungee operator explains, then dive off headfirst. He counts down quickly from five to zero.
After a few seconds of flight, you decide to look at the water after all. It's approaching, but you're slowing down. No problem. Then the cord bounces you back up, almost to the bridge. It's fall-bounce, fall-bounce in this fashion several times until you come to rest dangling a few feet above the water. Finally a guy in a raft rows over, tells you to reach down for a pole, and hauls you in.
Some of today's jumpers were apparently hooked. Sperling issued a challenge to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to come to Queenstown next year for a jump.
In the end, it may have been Plante who most aptly caught the spirit of the day. Moments before his leap, staring into the video cameras that record each jump, he put on his most formal TV-reporter voice and boomed, "This is Bill Plante of CBS News, proving that you're never too old to do something really stupid."