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Why are some politicians forgiven in sex scandals?

  • Story Highlights
  • Sen. John Edwards has admitted to an extramarital affair
  • Observers say Edwards could redeem himself if he follows the accepted script
  • Other politicians have survived affairs and kept their jobs
By Jessica Yellin
CNN National Political Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Damning new allegations about former Sen. John Edwards' extramarital affair are coming out -- this time, the claims could spell the end of Edwards' political career.

Ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned from office after facing public scrutiny for a publicized sex scandal.

Former President Bill Clinton faced impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

While the U.S. has a tradition of forgiveness, politicians seem able to gain forgiveness from the public and come back after just about anything. As long as the offender apologizes, gets punished and seems to suffer along the way, they are forgiven.

Edwards admitted to having an affair with former 2008 presidential campaign worker Rielle Hunter. He did a mea culpa.

"In 2006, two years ago, I made a very serious mistake. A mistake that I am responsible for and no one else," he said during an interview with ABC News' "Nightline."

"I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness," he said.

But now he's getting the front page New York Times treatment.

The paper cites a book proposal from former Edwards staffer Andrew Young, who alleges the North Carolina Democrat may not have told the full truth when asked if he fathered the mistress's new infant.

"I know that it's not possible that this child could be mine because of the timing of events, so I know it's not possible," Edwards told Nightline.

The article alleges he's likely the father.

"Mr. Young, who has since renounced that statement, has told publishers in a book proposal that Mr. Edwards knew all along that he was the child's father," according to the New York Times article on August 19. "He said Mr. Edwards pleaded with him to accept responsibility falsely, saying that would reduce the story to one of an aide's infidelity."

Another ugly charge: Edwards promised his mistress a wedding after Mrs. Edwards, who has cancer, passes.

Culture watchers have said Edwards could redeem himself if he follows the accepted script. Video Watch more on the fate of politicians caught in sex scandals »

"I think the wife's forgiveness is very important," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of political communications at American University. "He has to apologize. He has to repent. That is this Calvinist framework that our society works under when crises hit."

It worked for Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, who's seeking re-election after a prostitute scandal. And Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, who's still in office after an affair with a staffer's wife.

Another model: Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had an affair while he voted to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

Clinton himself moved on after enduring public punishment and is, many political observers note, highly popular in the United States and around the world.

So then why do others fail to win forgiveness? Those include South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, who has apologized endlessly. Or former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, who left office.

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"There is an unseemly factor to what they did that sort of disgusts people that makes people think there is something fundamentally wrong with them," Steinhorn said. "And I think that is why they may never recover fully unlike Bill Clinton."

CNN reached out to representatives for John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards and Andrew Young, the aide involved in the story. None of them provided statements for this story.

CNN's Ed Hornick contributed to this report.

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