CBS: ‘Does America Care’ About Edwards Affair?

Tracy Smith and Jeff Greenfield, CBS On CBS’s Sunday Morning, correspondent Tracy Smith reported on the news that John Edwards had cheated on his wife, but wondered: "I guess my question is, okay, sure, so it's going to be reported...But does America care at this point?" After political analyst Jeff Greenfield replied to her question with "sometimes," Smith cited poll numbers on the issue: "Yes, only sometimes. In a 2007 poll, 56 percent said it wouldn't matter to them if a presidential candidate had an extramarital affair."

Earlier in the discussion with Greenfield, Smith explained how "In a statement Friday, Edwards said that running for office made him feel special, egocentric; in effect, that the campaign made him do it." Greenfield then described: "If you're running for president, you get -- you get on a pedestal. You know, they -- motorcades happen for you and you get the adulation of crowds." However, he also asserted: "The one thing you probably can't do is to cheat."

Following that statement, Smith looked back at history and seemed to lament the coverage of politician’s infidelities: "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" [Clip of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to JFK]. Greenfield explained: "...the rules have changed is that the press, which never used to cover private matters, does." Smith added: "...reporters knew but said nothing...these indiscretions weren't talked about...But somewhere between Kennedy and Clinton, cheating politicians became fair game."

Smith did acknowledge that Elizabeth Edwards having cancer might be one reason why John Edwards’ cheating is "fair game": " Of course, it might matter more if the candidate's wife was well liked and very sick...In her statement, Elizabeth Edwards said that dealing with the affair was ‘a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007.’"

On Monday’s CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith suggested Edwards was "targeted" by his mistress.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

9:00AM TEASER:

ANTHONY MASON: In this election year, the political world has been shaken by scandal once again. John Edwards is the man at the center of this storm, after publicly admitting to an extramarital affair; a confession that is, as we have come to know, hardly unique. Along with Kelly Cobiella, Tracy Smith will report our cover story.

TRACY SMITH: It's the same old story: the politician, the press, and the sex scandal.

JOHN EDWARDS: I made a very serious mistake.

SMITH: It's been a weekend of new details and new disclosures. I guess my question is, OK, sure, so it's going to be reported.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Yeah.

SMITH: But does America care at this point?

GREENFIELD: The answer is -- I can give you a definite answer to does America care: sometimes.

SMITH: Later on Sunday Morning, a look at yet another fall from grace.

9:06AM TEASER:

MASON: The attorney for Rielle Hunter, the woman with whom John Edwards has confessed to having an affair, says she has ruled out a DNA test to establish who's the father of her baby. More on that coming up in our cover story.

9:07AM TEASER:

JOHN EDWARDS: I have no idea what you're asking about, I've responded to, consistently, to these tabloid allegations by saying-

MASON: Coming up, behind the headlines.

9:09AM SEGMENT:

ANTHONY MASON: Once Again, a prominent American politician has been caught in a marital infidelity. This time it's former presidential hopeful John Edwards. As we've come to know all too well in recent times, he has plenty of company. Kelly Cobiella and Tracy Smith share our cover story this morning. We begin with Kelly in North Carolina.

KELLY COBIELLA: In his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from serene sidewalks to bustling diners, the talk is the same: John Edwards, the favorite son, has become John Edwards, the disappointment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was disappointed. Very disappointed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, I'm disappointed but I'm not surprised.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: You know, someone in that high regard and in politics, you think, you know, you want to trust them and believe them, and it just makes it kind of hard to believe anything that he says.

COBIELLA: After months of public denials-

JOHN EDWARDS: I have no idea what you're asking about.

COBIELLA: -the former presidential candidate admitted Friday he strayed from his wife, Elizabeth, two years ago, and into the arms of campaign videographer Rielle Hunter.

EDWARDS: I made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else. I, in 2006, told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness.

COBIELLA: The admission stirred up even more questions: When did Edwards end the affair? Who is the father of Hunter's five-month-old daughter? And how did mother and daughter end up out of North Carolina and into a $3 million California home? A longtime Edwards campaign financial backer, Fred Barron, said in a statement Saturday he helped pay for Hunter's move because of harassment by supermarket tabloids. He did not give a dollar amount, but said John Edwards was not aware of the deal. As for Hunter's child, Edwards insists he is not the father and offered to take a paternity test to prove it. Through her attorney late yesterday, Hunter said she's not interested in any paternity tests. And that recent tabloid photograph claiming to show Edwards holding Hunter's daughter?

EDWARDS: I don't know anything about that photograph, don't know who -- I don't know who that baby is. I don't know if the picture has been altered, manufactured, it's a picture that was taken of me some other time holding another baby. I have no idea.

COBIELLA: Edwards' supporters are at best skeptical.

WOMAN B: Just looking in his face, it's like, 'He's not telling the whole truth.'

COBIELLA: At worst, crushed. David Bonior ran Edwards' most recent run for the presidency.

DAVID BONIOR: They feel deceived, betrayed. They put their faith and confidence into Senator Edwards and it was not reciprocated. And so they feel terrible about this.

COBIELLA: His most strident support has come at home, in the woods outside Chapel Hill. Elizabeth Edwards stood by her husband, saying in a statement: "I am proud of the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame." Even with a wife's forgiveness, former aides are saying forget about a possible return to public life and focus on family.

BONIOR: The confidence that people have had in him has been shaken, and I hope this story is over with, but I don't think it is. And we'll see.

EDWARDS: I made a very serious mistake.

TRACY SMITH: And so, Once Again. This is Tracy Smith. Another sex scandal, another contrite politician delivering, on national TV, what sounds like different parts of the same speech.

JIM MCGREEVEY: It was wrong, it was foolish, it was inexcusable.

ELIOT SPITZER: The remorse I feel will always be with me.

EDWARDS: The truth is, you can't possibly beat me up more than I've already beaten myself up.

SMITH: Politics is a tough business, but being a politician seems to be, well, emboldening. 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.

JEFF GREENFIELD: If you're running for president, you get -- you get on a pedestal. You know, they -- motorcades happen for you and you get the adulation of crowds. And if you get to be president, you know, all the planes stop when your plane takes off and when you die you're on a stamp. The one thing you probably can't do is to cheat.

SMITH: 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.

MARILYN MONROE: Happy birthday, Mr. President.

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

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

SMITH: FDR, JFK-

GREENFIELD: Right.

SMITH: -these indiscretions weren't talked about.

GREENFIELD: Right. It was what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

SMITH: But somewhere between Kennedy and Clinton, cheating politicians became fair game. I guess my question is, okay, sure, so it's going to be reported.

GREENFIELD: Yeah.

SMITH: But does America care at this point?

GREENFIELD: The answer is -- I can give you a definite answer to does America care: sometimes.

SMITH: Yes, only 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. Amy Walter is editor in chief of The Hotline.

AMY WALTER: I think that a lot of the focus of the affair, actually, has been about its impact on Elizabeth Edwards. Obviously, Elizabeth Edwards' story, her fight with cancer, the fact that she's very 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.

SMITH: In her 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. This idea that you're getting things in order?

ELIZABETH EDWARDS: You know that when you die, any of us when we die, are going to leave a bunch of headaches 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. Got to do something with your day, and that's what I choose to do.

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

GREENFIELD: There'll be sympathy. There'll certainly be sympathy for her. You know, he's got a family, he's got kids of various ages, and you feel for them. We -- I mean, you do. But the other part of it is I think 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.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC