Another Politician, Another Scandal

John Edwards
On a weekend of new details and new disclosures in the John Edwards saga, Tracy Smith offers a look at yet another fall from grace.

Here we go again.

Another sex scandal, another contrite politician, delivering - on national TV - what sounds like different parts of the same speech.

Politics is a tough business, but being a politician seems to be...well, emboldoning. In a statement Friday, Edwards said that running for office made him feel special. Egocentric.

In effect, that the campaign made him do it. It's a common affliction, says CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

"If you're running for president, you get on a pedestal," he said. "Motorcades happen for you. You get the adulation of crowds. And if you get to be president all the planes stop when your plane takes off and when you die you're on a stamp. The one thing you can't do is to cheat."

It wasn't always this way. Grover Cleveland served two terms after a scandal in which he was said to have fathered a child. Much has been made of Franklin Roosevelt's romance with Lucy Mercer and others. And JFK - well, we all know that song.

You've heard it before: reporters knew, but said nothing.

"The reason why the John Edwards thing I think is so striking is the other way the rules have changed," said Greenfield. "The press, which never used to cover private matters, does."

When it came to FDR and JFK, he added, "it was what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

But somewhere between Kennedy and Bill Clinton, cheating politicians became fair game. And America cares - sometimes.

In a 2007 poll, 56 percent said it wouldn't matter to them if a presidential candidate had an extramarital affair. Of course, it might matter more if the candidate's wife was well liked - and very sick.

"I think that a lot of the focus of the affair actually has been about its impact on Elizabeth Edwards," said Hotline editor Amy Walter. "Obviously Elizabeth Edwards' story, her fight with cancer, the fact that she's well liked and has very high regard I think is what has really made this story stick a little bit more than maybe it would for somebody else."

In a statement, Elizabeth Edwards said that dealing with the affair was "a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007." And in an interview last summer, she spoke frankly about facing her own death.

"You know that when you die, when anyone dies you're going to leave a bunch of headaches behind for the people behind us in addition to the fact that they'll miss us of course, and so I'm trying to minimize that to the extent that I can," she said. "Gotta do something with your day, and that's what I choose to do."

Now she's chosen to stand by her husband. Whether or not the American public will is still very much an open question.

"There'll be sympathy, certainly sympathy for her, he's got a family, he's got kids of various ages, and you feel for him," said Greenfield. "You do. But the other part of it I think is you feel an enormous sense of, as Jay Leno said to Hugh Grant, 'what the hell were you thinking?' And of course thinking is probably the last element in a story like this."