White House Still Behind Behind Wolfowitz-Sort of

“Let’s please move our dinner to another week.  We are on standby.”

That was the e-mail message I got from a World Bank official I had planned to dine with last night.  The message came shortly before I left my office for the day.  Although some could say the cancellation was short notice, I fully understood.  “We are on standby” speaks volumes about what is going on at the World Bank and its embattled President Paul Wolfowitz these days.

At the regular gaggle (early morning briefing) for White House reporters yesterday, questions about Wolfowitz and the conclusion of a World Bank investigatory panel that he violated rules in engineering a promotion and payraise for his girlfriend — herself a Bank employee — rivaled in number those about the Kansas tornado and the foiled strike of Albanian terrorists against Fort Dix.

With Helen Thomas, grande dame of the White House Press Corps, leading the charge, reporters launched questions about whether Wolfowitz, formerly number two official at the Department of Defense, would soon be leaving the World Bank over the ethics charge.

“We still support Paul Wolfowitz,” said Press Secretary Tony Snow.  But the President’s top spokesman qualified his remarks, watering down the earlier resonant words of support for the World Bank president when the controversy erupted last month.

“The conversations right now are not between the Administration and the World Bank,” Snow told us, “They’re between Mr. Wolfowitz and the World Bank and I think it’s proper to let the process work itself out rather than try to insinuate ourselves into it.”

Snow’s words were a far cry from those of Acting Press Secretary Dana Perino last month.  Filling in for Snow while he was being treated for cancer, Perino gave a ringing endorsement to Wolfowitz, saying: “Let me just reiterate for you that the President does have full confidence in Paul Wolfowitz.  He has done a very good job at the World Bank, where they are working to lift people up out of poverty around the world.”

Perhaps aware that his remarks yesterday morning could signal a weakening of support for the World Bank chief, Snow told reporters on Air Force One as they headed for Kansas today that “We still support [Wolfowitz] fully.”

The same day, the Washington Times began playing what is sure to be the popular pastime at Washington dinner parties in guessing who will succeed Wolfowitz when and if he leaves the World Bank post.  Citing suggestions from the “international development community,” the Times named Robert B. Zoellick, managing director at Goldman Sachs and former deputy secretary of state under Bush, as a possible successor to Wolfowitz.  Other names mentioned by the Times are those of Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Ronald Reagan; Stanley Fischer, chief economist at the World Bank, and UN Development Program Administrator Kermal Davis, a former Turkish minister of economics.  No non-American has ever been president of the World Bank since it was founded after World War II.