IT'S TIME for President Bush to take Karl Rove to the woodshed and show him the ax. And if Bush doesn't get better answers than the public has, he should use the ax.
Instead, the White House is producing mealy-mouthed comments that seek to avoid responsibility. Yesterday Bush ignored a reporter's question as to whether he might dismiss Rove, his deputy chief of staff and top political adviser. Shortly after, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the president has confidence in ''any individual who works here at the White House."
This milquetoast response was apparently meant as support for Rove. It followed an extraordinary performance on Monday, when McClellan ducked 61 press questions -- including ''Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" -- saying that he was clamming up because of an ''ongoing investigation." Never mind that McClellan had no such qualms more than a year ago when he defended Rove stoutly despite the fact that the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was ongoing then.
What we have here is a failure of leadership from Bush. Collapse might be a better word. Bush should have acted immediately after the issue surfaced in July 2003, when Valerie Plame was identified, first by columnist Robert Novak, as a CIA agent. Bush and his father, a former CIA chief, both denounced the leak, which wrecked any chance Plame had of doing additional undercover work and may have jeopardized her contacts in previous assignments.
In particular, both Bushes said that political retribution would be an especially deplorable motive for the leak. Novak's column appeared only eight days after Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent to Niger by the government, published an op-ed article in The New York Times undercutting the administration's contention that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear material there.
But these words by the Bushes ring hollow now.
Novak identified his sources as ''senior administration officials." President Bush should have demanded immediately that the leaker reveal himself and leave the White House staff. Instead there has been a long series of defenses and obfuscations, and now stonewalling.
Rove, it appears, is trying to avoid a legal problem by contending that referring to someone as ''Wilson's wife" did not identify Valerie Plame, even though Wilson has only one wife.
Whatever Rove's legal vulnerability, the evidence is now strong that he betrayed the standard set by the presiedent for ethical behavior. If Bush continues to shilly-shally, it will be clear that this standard he embraced is no more credible than Rove's and McClellan's denials.