There were many questions to ask about John Edwards on Friday after he admitted he'd had an affair. But the most poignant ones weren't really about him.
What, so many people wondered, about his wife, Elizabeth? The woman who experienced both tragedy and success by his side, who campaigned relentlessly for him, and who's now battling incurable cancer? How was she doing? And if she had indeed forgiven him, should everyone else do the same?
Diane Helbig, for one, was in no mood to forgive.
"I think it's the meanest thing that could ever have happened to her," said Helbig, 47, a business development coach from Lakewood, Ohio. "Meaner than getting cancer, which is not controllable."
Betrayal on top of illness, she said, was like "adding garbage to garbage. I just don't understand how someone who professes to love somebody can do this."
Edwards acknowledged Friday that he'd had an affair with a former campaign aide, Rielle Hunter, in 2006 and that he'd lied repeatedly about it. In an interview with ABC News, he denied, though, that he was the father of her baby girl, Frances Quinn, although he said he hadn't taken a paternity test. In a statement, he said he told his family about the affair in 2006.
And in her own statement later Friday, his wife answered many questions herself, saying that her husband had made a bad mistake in 2006, that the family had then begun "a long and painful process," and that she and the rest of the family stood behind Edwards. She made a heartfelt appeal for privacy and decried the "hurtful and absurd lies" wrongly alleging, she said, that her husband had fathered a child outside the marriage.
"Although John believes he should stand alone and take the consequences of his action now, when the door closes behind him, he has his family waiting for him," her statement said.
That Elizabeth Edwards might have known, and for a long while, didn't diminish the admiration Ellen Gerstein, a New York marketing director, feels for her.
"You know what — she's still really bright and I still have a lot of respect for her," said Gerstein, 40, of Ardsley, N.Y. — though she added that sticking by her husband under those circumstances was "not a choice I would be making."
Gerstein met Elizabeth Edwards, who is 59, after a speech the candidate's wife made last year at a bloggers' conference. "She was smart, witty and charming," Gerstein said. "My heart goes out to her. She shouldn't have to deal with this, after all she has been through, from the loss of her son, Wade, to her brave battle against cancer." Wade Edwards was killed at age 16 in a car accident in 1996.
A few of those interviewed felt they — and we — shouldn't be judging the actions of either husband or wife, because their personal life was just that: personal.
"I don't think it's anyone else's business what's going on in their marriage," said Joanna Coles, editor in chief of Marie Claire, the women's magazine. "I feel for Elizabeth Edwards, and I also feel that she's the only person allowed to make any judgment in this situation."
If she had forgiven her husband and moved on, Coles added, that also would be her own business — and not, incidentally, an unusual response. "Sometimes affairs make a marriage stronger," Coles said. "Just because there has been an affair doesn't mean you don't have a strong marriage."
Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, who has counseled many couples through infidelity, concurred. "Marriages survive infidelity when both decide to repair and forgive," said Saltz. "The biggest sufferer will be that child."
Edwards said in an interview with "Nightline" Friday that his wife had indeed forgiven him, and he was going to move on. Asked if his marriage would survive, he said: "Oh yeah. I think our marriage will not only survive, it will be strong."
And yet Elizabeth Edwards did not appear with her husband for the interview. Edwards said he'd asked her not to, because "she should not be involved in protecting me from whatever the consequences of this are."
In March, many wondered why then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's wife, Silda, stood by his side at the podium not once but twice — first as he apologized, then when he resigned. Spitzer had just been caught in a prostitution scandal that cost him his job.
Carla Young, 25, felt that while the Edwardses were entitled to their privacy — no matter how they've decided to handle this — she herself could not countenance the dishonesty she felt Edwards displayed in lying.
"OK, tell reporters it's none of their business, but don't lie," said Young, who works in accounting at the University of Texas. "Is he lying about the baby being his, as well?"
Along with the sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards came equally ardent sympathy for her three children — Cate, 26, Emma Claire, 10, and Jack, 8.
"This informs what Cate will know about relationships with men," said Helbig, the Ohio business coach. "It informs how she will deal with her own relationships with men."
And Louis Columbus, who works in business development in Orange, Calif., was stunned that Edwards didn't look ahead to the potential impact on his children.
"This is a smart guy, an attorney," he said. "What amazes me is that he doesn't see how this action is going to reverberate not only through his marriage. Now it's going to touch his kids forever."