ABC POLITICAL AND MEDIA ANALYST Jeff Greenfield readily admits that the characters in The People's Choice, his new satirical novel, did not spring full-blown from his fertile imagination: The Democratic wheeler-dealer comes courtesy of James Carville, while the Republican operative owes much to Mary Matal-in. And, says Greenfield, 52, "the Distinguished Commentator is me. When he's doing a stand-up and something goes wrong with the camera or planes fly over, his lack of Christlike patience is me. It happens in my personal life as well. I was on a flight from San Francisco that was 3 hours late, and I didn't blink an eye. However, when they were 10 minutes late opening the door, I could barely contain myself. You know how they say not to sweat the small stuff? That's all I sweat."

By most critical accounts, Greenfield—the former boy wonder who was writing speeches for Robert Kennedy at 24 and who currently toils for ABC's Nightline—got both the small stuff and the big stuff right in his first novel. In The People's Choice, President-elect MacArthur Foyle dies just two days after his victory. It is assumed that his running mate will ascend to the job. But, no, the electoral college has not yet met to ratify the vote—so that arcane body can now bring in anyone it chooses, from the VP-elect to, say, Jerry Springer.

Greenfield got the idea for the book in 1980, when a rumor circulated on election night that Ronald Reagan had suffered a stroke. A decade passed before he started writing and then, surprisingly, he found himself blocked. His problem was plain old fear. "I was overwhelmed," says Greenfield, "by something John O'Hara said—that if you got the details wrong about character, you would get the character wrong. The day I finished, the clouds parted. I told my wife, Karen, I didn't care if the book went straight to the remainder piles, because I'd done it."

Most things have come more easily to Greenfield. "He was always an extraordinary kid," says his mother, Helen, 72, a former teacher who may be Jeff's biggest fan. "My mother taught him to read when he was 2. We lived across from a Loews theater; she sat him where he could see the marquee and practiced each letter with him."

Growing up in Manhattan where his father, Benjamin, now 80, was an attorney knee-deep in New York City politics, Greenfield says he was "a normal, neurotic Jewish kid from the Upper West Side," who was crazy about baseball. In fact he caught the political bug one night in 1952, when his desire to listen to a Yankee game on the radio was preempted by his mother's desire to tune into the Republican national convention. "He started to complain," says Helen, "and the next thing I knew, he was tallying the votes."

In 1964, Greenfield graduated from the University of Wisconsin and went to Yale Law School. "I would have been a terrible lawyer," says Greenfield, who lasted just eight weeks at a Manhattan law firm in 1967. Then, at 24, he became a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. "It was a quirk of fate," says Greenfield, explaining that a Yale professor who had heard him holding forth in a seminar mentioned his name to the Kennedy people.

In 1968 he was celebrating at an RFK victory party in the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot. Greenfield went on to write speeches for New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Next he worked for media consultant David Garth, creating political commercials. Greenfield got into TV himself in '68, commentating on a show with William F. Buckley Jr. A dozen years later, he was at CBS, covering the Republican and Democratic conventions. He joined ABC in 1983.

Greenfield married Karen Gannett, now 42, in 1993. He had met her 13 years earlier when she was a producer at CBS. "It was almost a When Harry Met Sally story," says Greenfield (who had been divorced in February 1993 after a four-year separation from writer-actor Carrie Carmichael, mother of his daughter Casey, 22, and son David, 13). "We would see each other every six months for lunch. Then, about five years ago, it dawned on us that something else was going on."

The Greenfields live in a two-bedroom apartment 29 blocks south of his boyhood home. They weekend in Connecticut, where Greenfield plays in a softball game with buddy Tom Brokaw. "If Jeff's mind were his legs," says Brokaw, "he'd be the fastest guy on our team." Most Wednesdays, the clubby Greenfield meets with the Lunch Group, which includes film critic Joel Siegel and New York City adman Jerry Della Femina. "One of the jokes," says plastic surgeon Jerry Im-ber, "is that we sit down at 12:30. If they haven't taken our order by 12:32, Jeff is already complaining."

Actually, Greenfield, who is contemplating a second novel, is feeling less anxious these days. He used to pick up a novel and wonder, he says, "How did the writer conjure up this world?" Now, he says, "I feel less crazed about making the switch to fiction because I've written a novel. But, hey, Ivana Trump also wrote a novel."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger.