I knew what not to ask Karl Rove: Are you about to be indicted in the CIA leak case?

His answer would be predictable: My lawyer has asked me not to discuss the investigation while it is still ongoing.

But he had just finished a speech on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute–the hotbed of prowar neoconservatism–and during the Q&A period none of the reporters were addressing the big elephant in the room: the recent chatter in Washington–fueled in part by Rove’s recent return to the grand jury room (for his fifth appearance)–that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was getting closer to indicting George W. Bush’s master strategist.

I’ve been trying not to be drawn into the rumor vortex. (A friend emailed to say that a lawyer involved in the leak case speculated that Rove would be indicted this coming Friday.) But a pending indictment–or non-indictment–has been the talk of the town. Still, there was Rove mouthing White House talking points on how swell the economy is, and a roomful of reporters (and lobbyists and policy wonks) were not addressing what was on the mind of many. After all, who yearns to hear Rove explain why the Bush administration is the model of fiscal responsibility?

So I raised my hand.

To his credit, Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI, called on me. (Introducing Rove, DeMuth had hailed his “strength of character,” his “disciplined serenity,” and his refusal to complain about the “flagrant unfairness” of the attacks levied upon him.) But as DeMuth was surveying the crowd at the AEI’s conference room, Rove jokingly asked him not to call on John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and then, as DeMuth pointed at yours truly, Rove said, “Don’t call on him either.”

The microphone was handed to me. “Too late,” I said to Rove, and I put a simple query to the man:

On a different subject, Scott McClellan told the White House press corps–many are here today–that he had spoken to you and you were not involved in the CIA leak. Can you explain why the American public…two and a half years later hasn’t been given an explanation? Don’t you think it deserves one, for it does seem that you were to some degree–though it may be disputed–involved in that leak?

Rove replied:

My attorney, Mr. [Robert] Luskin, made a statement on April 26. I refer you to that statement. I have nothing new to add to it.

Then, with a half-smile on his face, he added,

Nice try, though.

That was it. (You can watch the exchange here.) I hardly expected him to provide a responsive answer. But didn’t somebody have to take a swing?

Of course, the statement Luskin released had nothing to do with this question. Luskin had declared that Rove “is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges.”

I wasn’t asking if Rove was a target or on the edge of being indicted. I was wondering if he had told the truth to McClellan and why the Bush White House has been unwilling to explain why it falsely denied Rove and Scooter Libby’s participation in the leak. Lying to the public is generally not a crime. And Fitzgerald’s probe–which is geared solely toward investigating possible crimes and determining if a criminal case can be made–is not designed to examine non-criminal falsehoods. It is not Fitzgerald’s task to lay out for the American public the truth about the leak and to reveal what happened within the White House. That is–or ought to be–Bush’s responsibility. But neither he nor Rove–nor anyone else connected to the administration–seems interested in meeting that obligation.

After Rove’s non-response to my question, no other reporter asked about the leak case. They focused on economics, immigration, and the president’s low numbers. (Rove noted that the main problem is that the public likes Bush the man but it just doesn’t fancy his war in Iraq. How inconvenient.) But after the event was done, there was much dissecting of Rove’s state of mind. Did he seem nervous? Anxious? Was this speech–a policy speech–a sign that he was still handling policy in the White House even though the policy brief was officially ripped from him in the recent White House staff shuffle? (The speech introduced no new policy notions; it was almost entirely a defense of Bush’s tax cuts, his trade policies, and his stewardship of the federal budget.) That is, no one cared that much what Rove really had to say–other than, perhaps, what he said during the Q&A about politics. (The GOPers will do fine in November, polls are just polls, the Dems have nothing to run on, etc.) They were mostly there to watch and read between the rhetoric.

Rove was on display–which was the point, given Fitzgerald’s never-ending probe and the changes at the White House. Perhaps it was indeed merely a “nice try” to address the real issue at hand. But if any indictment does come–and I’m not saying that it will–Rove’s you-can’t-touch-me dodge-with-a-grin will sure make good footage for the news shows.