The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whenever a person wholly devoted to work says he's leaving his post to spend more time with the family, it's time to count the spoons.

And possibly, the subpoenas.

Consider Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff, President Bush's political adviser, his brain, his architect, his boy genius, his - as the president puts it so endearingly - turd blossom.

"There's always something that can keep you here, and as much as I'd like to be here," Rove told the Wall Street Journal Monday, "I've got to do this for the sake of my family."

This came as a shock after 61/2 years in Washington, D.C., even during the dog days of August.

First, that Rove had a Mrs. Rove.

Second, that Rove and Mrs. Rove found time to have a little Rove.

Little Rove, as it turns out, is 18 years old and attends college.

Why is it that when a candidate loses, a powerful person stumbles, or congressional judiciary committees issue subpoenas, this is precisely the moment a workaholic slaps his head and announces, generally to an open mike or a running tape recorder, "Gee, I forgot to spend quality time with the family!"

Imagine the equal shock of the long-neglected loved ones.

Spouse: "Now that everything's lousy, you want to spend 'quality' time with us?"

Kid: "Who is this guy? And why is he hogging the remote?"

Recovering workaholic: "Uhmm, where's the kitchen?"

Why does his family get to see him only when he's mopey and depressed? Rove resigned to go home to Ingram, Tex., which is close to precisely nothing.

This from a man who was so busy running the College Republicans that he never found time to graduate from college?

Note that a potentate always "resigns." He's never fired, even days before an indictment or two. Firing is for little people, the ones who spend quantity time with the family and don't need to announce a return to parenting as a career move, an act of redemption and a public sound bite.

The powerful resign with benefits, preferably a golden parachute commensurate with their incompetence or malfeasance, and a possible book contract.

One of the rare instances where this wasn't true was two years ago when Sandra Day O'Connor, whom I miss more with each passing Rovian Supreme Court decision, retired to care for her husband, felled by Alzheimer's.

Rove is leaving with more drama if for less obvious reasons. "I realize that some of the Democrats are Captain Ahab and I'm the great white whale," Rove said Monday. "I noticed the other day some Democratic staffers were quoted calling me 'the big fish.' Well, I'm Moby Dick and they're after me."

A fitting analogy. As you may recall in Melville's classic, the work-obsessed Captain Ahab drowns. The entire crew of the Pequod drowns, felled by the great white whale. Everyone dies in the end except the whale and Ishmael, possibly so someone's left to narrate the epic tale, the literary equivalent of a ghost writer.

Often, these "spend more time with the family" decisions last a matter of weeks, until another job presents itself, one with better pay and fewer hours, a board of directors position, a lecture tour, an undemanding teaching post, and the big shot can take flight from the Barcalounger.

In the meantime, it's best to count those spoons.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.