For my money the best reportage on Tip O'Neill was done by Nancy Porter in a film for PBS a couple of years ago. In the scene I admired most, at a reunion of the "Barry's Corner" gang of boyhood pals from North Cambridge, Mass., O'Neill recited some dogerel that James Michael Curley had urged him, perhaps 40 years earlier to memorize. As O'Neill explained, it was one of a handful of poems that Curley felt would equip a young speaker with a safe sentiment for any occasion. Even after that deprecatory warning. O'Neill delivered the verse about the ravages of time on old friends and friendships in a fashion that brought tears to the eyes at Barry's Corner and lumps to many a throat in the PBS audience, too. This, it seemed to me, was the essential Tip O'Neill: Traditional Irish pol, everyone agrees, but also a studied performer, polished enough to make most of us forget the years of artifice in the role. Ronald Reagan was not the first actor in politics; Tip O'Neill would rank, on any list, among the best.

In "Tip," by seasoned congressional reporters Paul Clancy and Shirley Elder, there is no scene as gripping as the video sketch of the speaker back at Barryhs Corner. In a number of tasty stories about O'Neill's hand in Kennedy politics through the years there is nothing as pithy as Jimmy Breslin's report (in "How the Good Guys Finally Won") that in fund-raising efforts, JFK had O'Neill husband and report the checks, but kept the cash himself. There are no lines as memorable, for that matter, as Breslin's "mirrors and blue smoke" describing legislative power or Breslin's "great spring rain" of a man, describing O'Neill.

This is a relatively workaday effort at a patently impossible goal: serious biography of a legislative survivor, whose real secret is submerging his individuality and whose whole method is indirection and blarney. This is a wide-open soul who, under certain circumstances, might not tell you your coat was on fire.

O'Neill's game has included carrying Common Cause's campaign for recorded "teller" votes in the early '70s, and declaring, meanwhile, that "the one thing in the world I don't want to be classified as is a reformer." It was typically elusive O'Neill to be early among the Capitol Hill regulars against the war policy in Vietnam (he is Havard Square's congressman, after all) but also to tell Lyndon Johnson that he had not been affected by the "crackpot students" of the "acadamians" in his District. It is hardly in a Speaker's interest to reveal himself for a full portrait while he still occupies the office, and O'Neill is too good a politician to have done so here.

For hard-core fans there are some fascinating nuggets in 228 pages of mostly treacle. O'Neill's early career in the late 1940s and as the first Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts House is a story largely forgotten even in O'Neill's home state. But, as Big League experience that drew on all of O'Neill's natural skill as a campaign planner, vote counter and ruthless partisan.

For the state legislative campaign of 1948, O'Neill oversaw the research locating 40 House districts that had voted Democratic for governor the last time out but still had Republican incumbents in the legislature; O'Neill helped recurit and fund the 40 Democratic challengers for those seats; 36 of them won, and Democrats for a change had a four-vote majority in the new House. O'Neill had good reason to suspect that Republican lobbyists, to save the speakership, had compromised eight Democrats with offers of $5,000 apiece to "take a walk" on the speaker's vote, or $10,000 to vote for the Republican. O'Neill and the newly elected Democratic Gov. Paul A. Dever responded by offering judgeships, as needed, to secure five Republican votes to elect O'Neill speaker. By O'Neill's account, "We had our five guys locked up waiting for their eight, to make sure, because we were going to win it by one vote, regardless of what happened."

From a man who talks as much as O'Neill does, there are inevitably some striking bits: I think most of O'Neills constituents are unaware how early and how successfully he pursued his Cambridge sideline in insurance: "In 1952," he blurts out, "I made $43,000 in the insurance business -- the year before I went to Congress. I had a hell of an insurance business. Chirst, there wasn't anybody on Massachusetts Avenue that I didn't insure."

Overall, however, in the contest here between the journalist's impulse to draw hard-edged lines of inquiry and the politician's impulse to blur them, this is O'Neill's book all the way. The early history of the lumbering, good-natured son of Tom O'Neill Sr., a bricklayer-politician, expresses the subject's attachment ot Irish-American folklore and fiction but adds few particulars of much freshness or feeling. Many of the anecdotes, early and late, are adopted too quickly and uncritically from O'Neill cronies. Throughout, the authors are too easily overwhelmed by O'Neill's calls to HUD on behalf of developer James Wilmot, a favorite Democratic fund-raiser. "Yes, he's my friend," O'Neill gets away with explaining. "He said he was being pushed around by the department. An inquity, an injustice was being done. I'd do it for anyone."

Other well-established stories -- birthday parties sponsored by Tongsun Park; personal investments in nursing home ventures that got government assistance -- hinting at a certain rascality in O'Neill's makeup are much too lightly dismissed. They are all treated in a single chapter on O'Neill's relations with the press, almost as if the stories themselves reflected nothing more than overzealousness among competing Boston dailies. Clancy and Elder did not do their work in this respect: They skim lightly over the mystery of O'Neill's sponsorship of John McGarry to the Federal Election Commission in 1977 and 1978. Evidently Clancy and Elder do not yet understand that what made McGarry questionable was his history not as an O'Neill "gopher" but as brother and beneficiary of the late Bernard McGarry, a beloved Boston bookmaker whom Robert Kennedy's Justice Department had sent to federal prison in the 1960s.

A preliminary "biography" of Tip O'Neill could have been a lot tougher without making us any less grateful for this old-fashioned politician in the rudderless age of Carter.