A Different Side Of Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards
CBS
It is an Elizabeth Edwards we never imagined we would see - speaking bluntly about learning of her husband's infidelity on Thursday's "Oprah." But it's more than that, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

Through two presidential campaigns, her battle with breast cancer, and the wrenching news that it had returned and spread just as John was beginning his second run for the White House, Elizabeth Edwards was as admired - even loved - as few candidates' spouses have ever been.

"People really responded in Elizabeth to her ability to talk to anybody, people really felt like she reminded them of their mother, their sister, their best friend," said political journalist Melinda Henneberger. "That you would love to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with her."

If anything, the revelation that John Edwards had cheated on her - along with allegations that he had fathered the child of his lover - earned Elizabeth Edwards more sympathy, especially when her husband offered this explanation for his behavior.

"It happened in a period when she was in remission for cancer," Edwards had told Bob Woodruff on Nightline.

But now, as she promotes her new book, "Resilience," Edwards has become the subject of critical comments and columns, by once-admiring women who say that she was part of a presidential campaign that was hostage to a potentially devastating secret. Imagine, they argue, if Edwards had been his party's nominee when the Reille Hunter affair had become public knowledge.

"But that being the case, it's a little bit hard to understand why she, as well as her husband, would really play chicken with the countries future," Henneberger said. "It would risk so much for her, not only his, but what looks more and more like their ambition."

It's not as if we haven't seen this before, where a highly capable, politically engaged spouse subordinates her talents to those of her husband's - even when his private life could prove politically damaging.

"I'm not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man," Hillary Clinton has said.

But John and Elizabeth Edwards offered themselves to the public as a very different kind of political couple, which may be why in her book Elizabeth Edwards concludes that her initial questions about a second campaign were right: that he simply should not have run again.