Edward P. Boland seems an improbable man at the storm center.

Seated behind his nameplate, in the front row of the select committee on the Iran-contra scandal, the 75-year-old congressman from Springfield, Mass., has peered through his clear-frame glasses, almost clinically inexpressive during the first phase of the congressional hearings. In his spare opening statement about the clash between "policy and constitutional principle," it was typical of the self-effacing Boland that he never mentioned the amendment that is at the heart of the clash and bears his name.

The Boland Amendment is actually a changing series of measures on the contras reflecting the shifting sentiment of Congress on Central American policy. Outrage at the secret mining of Nicaragua's harbors led to the framing of the amendment's most ironclad version. From October 1984 to September 1985, it prohibited funds "available to the CIA, DOD or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities" from "supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua."

But far from halting a subterranean foreign policy, Reagan's men, directed by Lt. Col. Oliver North, began to construct what Richard V. Secord has called "the Enterprise" -- a clandestine apparatus to provide for the contras until the White House could again persuade Congress to resume the funding.

Partly as a consequence of the Boland Amendment, the scandal may be gathering into a crisis. What is at issue is beyond partisan divisions, beyond the combat of contras and Sandinistas. The question now, as Boland believes, is whether the president and the National Security Council staff are above the rule of this law. If they are, the old republic, as Boland understands it, will have been replaced by a new imperium.

Reagan, in fact, signed the Boland Amendment and has said he was adhering to its strictures, but his ultimate defense is that he is exempt:

"It so happens that it does not apply to me," Reagan told U.S. News & World Report on May 25 while denying that he had violated it. "And there is nothing that has ever been in the Boland Amendment that could keep me from asking other people to help the rebels."

"Swiss cheese," said retired major general Secord, referring to the amendment, not to bank accounts.

In a concerted display of op-ed strength, conservatives have contended that the Boland Amendment was the real crime, usurping the president's rightful prerogative in foreign policy and breaching the separation of powers.

"Unconstitutional in intent," opined George F. Will, the columnist.

As slings and arrows are hurled at Boland, he remains taciturn. "The attack is building all the time," he says. "Maybe that's the only way out for them."

But Boland dismisses the view that the passage of his amendment was a symbolic indulgence, or an unconstitutional doctrine. "It's not even a law? Swiss cheese full of holes? The first amendment that was offered passed in 1982. That passed {the House} by 411 to nothing -- to nothing. That was the first one. . .

"Does the National Security Council come in under it? I think so. Obviously, there was no question raised by the administration at the time it was passed. You know, they've got the whole Department of Justice to ask for legal opinions. If they thought it was unconstitutional that would have been a good time to question it."

In the meantime, the Boland Amendment is scourged. "George Will does it," says Boland. "Oh, he's a smart, intelligent guy. Who's the other columnist? Charles Krauthammer. He's a good writer, incidentally. He's smart. So you get him. You get James Kilpatrick. You get The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times. That's about the size of it."

For all that, says Boland: "It is the law ... No technicalities there. No confusion there ... It is as clear as a bell -- clear as a bell."

And if it is the law, he continues, "It would be a very significant question, given the way the hearings are going, if the law was broken by this administration. That question will be answered in time, and it may well be answered by the court."

The Boland Amendment is more famous than Boland. He has no interest in 15 minutes of fame, preferring 34 years so far of national political influence. A conspicuous display of importance, to him, would be gratuitous and imprudent.

"I don't like the limelight in this situation," he says. "I think you have the responsibility of staying out of it." His biographical entry in the Congressional Directory, inserted by him, is three terse lines: name, party, district and congresses to which he was elected. It is the shortest entry in the book. No one remembers Boland ever having called a press conference. And he never gave an interview about his role as the first chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Boland has the modesty of one whose standing where he is best known -- the House of Representatives -- is not modest.

"When you get done writing all the history, the reason this whole strategy of the administration unraveled is that they decided to lie to Eddie Boland rather than to tell the truth," says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). "This is not a guy who's a flash in the pan. What you had were all his years of credibility." And when he proposed the Boland Amendment, says Miller, "people had to take a step back and say, whoa, this is Eddie Boland."

"If the Boland Amendment had been anyone else's it wouldn't have passed. It would not have had the institutional significance," says former congressman James Shannon, the Massachusetts attorney general, who has been close to Boland. "It wouldn't have happened if you didn't have someone from the background Eddie comes from."

"I'm not a fan of the Boland Amendment, but I am a big fan of Eddie Boland," says Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), chairman of the House Republican Conference. "You won't find as many members of the House as respected as he is. He took the Intelligence Committee when it was brand new and made it into something significant. On our side of the aisle you won't find anyone to say anything bad about him."

Boland's devotion to his office has been almost priestly. He married at 62, after having roomed for 24 years with Tip O'Neill, whose family remained in Cambridge. "Frankly," says the former speaker of the House, "his life was politics. He studied every night."

Many mornings Boland eats breakfast with a couple of members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. He is of an older Irish American political strain that is not breezy or casual. He is given to long silences, especially among those with whom he shares implicit assumptions such as the old political virtues of loyalty and friendship. "He honors the New England code: Only talk when it improves the silence," says Christopher Matthews, O'Neill's former press secretary and now president of the Government Research Corp.

He has lived his political life within hierarchies as complex as the Vatican, and slowly risen. He appears to be the opposite of a true believer, but is governed by a belief in how the American government is supposed to function so deep that it is inseparable from who he is. Only after this belief was profoundly offended did he begin to formulate his amendment. His intent was to restore, not obliterate, the separation of powers.

"He is one of those quiet men of the House, who in fact make it work," says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who, as former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, worked closely with Boland. "He has absolute integrity and no personal interest, only the interest of his district and his country ... The office is his vocation. There is none other."

"A lifetime," says Boland on what he has contributed to politics. "I've been here a long period of time -- hell, 18th term."

His parents were immigrants from County Kerry, Ireland. And his father was a railroad worker. He grew up in the Irish ethnic neighborhood of Hungry Hill, where politics was as natural as breathing. In Springfield, Boland came to know other young politicos: Lawrence O'Brien, who would become John F. Kennedy's crackerjack campaign operative and Democratic National Committee chairman, and Joseph Napolitan, who would become a founder of modern political consulting and an international strategist.

But Springfield politics, unlike Boston's, was not noted for its colorful chicanery and clamor. "The elections are very civilized compared to Boston, less vitriolic," says Napolitan.

Within Massachusetts, Springfield has been a crucible of first-rate political figures who have played secondary roles to Boston politicians. In this light, Boland has been the exemplary Springfield politician.

In 1934, when the midterm election results resoundingly reaffirmed support for the New Deal, the 23-year-old Boland, just graduated from the Boston College Law School, was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, a body dominated by Republicans. Two years later, he was joined by young Tip O'Neill. While O'Neill stayed on, becoming the first Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts House, Boland returned home, to become the Hampden County register of deeds. He was so popular in this minor post that he wound up securing both the Democratic and Republican nominations for reelection.

In 1952, the year of the Eisenhower ascendancy, Boland was elected to Congress, arriving in Washington with his old friend O'Neill. Together they rented an apartment and became known as the capital's odd couple. O'Neill, tall and stout, was the sloppy one; Boland, short and thin, was the neat one. "Eddie was the alarm clock," says one who knows them. The refrigerator was stocked with beer and cigars. "I don't think we ever had a meal in the place," says Boland.

At every station of O'Neill's progress, Boland was there. "I nominated him for the position of majority leader twice, and for the office of speaker five times. He won each time," he said in a warm tribute, delivered on the occasion of O'Neill's retirement.

O'Neill always believed that their Bay State experience gave them a head start in Washington. "They play a hard cruel game," says O'Neill about the Massachusetts legislature. "If you come to Washington, you have a five- or six-year advantage on your freshmen congressmen."

Boland soon became friendly with another young Massachusetts representative, John F. Kennedy, five years his junior. According to O'Neill, "They were very close." Both of them broke with most of the delegation to vote for the St. Lawrence Seaway, thought to threaten the local economy, as a sign that they could transcend parochial limitations.

Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign was a crusade to Irish Americans of the Democratic faith, and Boland was a knight. His assigned duchy for the general election was Ohio (which voted finally for Richard Nixon). Boland's office is a veritable Kennedy shrine, containing a small bust of him and three framed pictures, one showing Boland shaking JFK's hand as Lyndon Johnson looks on.

Over the years, Boland quietly accumulated seniority, quietly promoted O'Neill within the leadership and quietly helped transform ailing Springfield into a thriving postindustrial center through the adroit use of federal programs.

In 1973, he quietly married 35-year-old Mary Egan, a bright lawyer who had been president of the Springfield city council. "A surprise," says O'Neill. It was whimsically remarked in Springfield that Egan was the only serious potential rival for Boland's seat. Every weekend, he quietly commuted home. And within six years he had four children.

His political vulnerability reached the vanishing point. He had not faced a serious challenger in decades. In 1982, he spent $47 on his reelection campaign. An infinitesimal 4 percent of the voters in his district regard him negatively, according to a 1987 poll conducted by Joseph Napolitan. "He doesn't make a lot of noise," says Napolitan. "And he does extraordinarily well."

O'Neill, in the meantime, had become speaker. Every Wednesday, at 6:30 a.m., he was briefed by the CIA. "It was so confidential," says O'Neill, "I couldn't tell my wife. So after about three months I said to myself that this is crazy. There ought to be an intelligence committee." In short order, the House created one; and so did the Senate. "Everyone I put on that committee I trusted," says O'Neill. "I knew of nobody more trustworthy than Eddie -- of the greatest sincerity, dedicated to the country and dedicated to keeping his mouth shut." When the Reagan team moved into Washington, Boland had been chairman for four years.

By the end of 1981, the administration had secretly organized the contras. In December, in a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, officials explained that these contras existed only to halt arms flowing from the Nicaraguan regime to the El Salvador rebels. Boland's skepticism, according to a source, was aroused. And he expressed it in a confidential letter to CIA Director William Casey. But he did not rush to controversy. Every step he took was carefully measured. Thus began the tortuous history of the Boland Amendment.

Throughout 1982, Tom Harkin, then a Democratic representative and now a senator from Iowa, advanced a bill that would cut off all contra funding. He was a Vietnam veteran, and he feared another quagmire.

"I wanted to believe the administration in what it wanted done: interdict the flow of arms into El Salvador," says Boland. With old-fashioned bipartisan spirit, Boland crafted what may be considered the first of several incarnations of the Boland Amendment -- which continued to finance the contras, but prohibited the rebels from using the money "for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras."

The administration gave the signal, and the Republicans in Congress unanimously supported the measure.

"That doesn't prohibit anything," muttered Casey, after this Boland Amendment passed in December 1982, according to a former Intelligence Committee staff member.

Within the House Democratic Caucus, the younger and liberal members argued that the administration's policy was deceitful. Boland, however, kept them at a distance. "He thought we were young, irascible, pretty far to the left," says George Miller. "He essentially didn't believe me for a long period of time."

"He is instinctively cautious, has great respect for the institution of the presidency, and believes the president should have real authority over foreign policy. He didn't have the built-in questioning that the younger Democrats have," says James Shannon. "He would never have moved if the administration had been honest. But they lied."

In the spring of 1983, Boland was traveling in China with O'Neill. Every day the U.S. Embassy provided him with press clippings. Says Boland: "Christopher Dickey {of The Washington Post} was traveling with a contra group. The clear evidence he got from those who were contras and leaders was that they were interested in overthrowing the government of Nicaragua, more interested than in the interdiction of arms ... There was deception there." Then more news stories appeared, featuring the contras boasting about the road to Managua.

And Boland began to move.

His personal emissary, Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D-Ga.), then a member of the Intelligence Committee and now a senator, was dispatched to Central America to investigate. He reported to Boland that his amendment was being violated.

Reagan, for his part, claimed on April 14, 1983, that he was "complying fully" with the Boland Amendment: "We are not doing anything to try and overthrow the Nicaraguan government."

In an unusual secret House session on July 19, Boland led the debate. "He was so determined and so deliberative in his presentation," says Miller. "You felt this is an institutional inside player; his best friend is the Speaker; you felt this guy was standing on 10 feet of concrete in his argument. He came in that determined voice to send the signal to members of Congress that this whole policy was a subterfuge. He wasn't going to misrepresent to his colleagues what was going on. It was his pride, his sense of the institution. That's why the issue turned. He started to occupy center stage. He started getting larger and larger."

"This secret war is bad U.S. policy," said Boland about a week later on the House floor, "because it does not work, because it is in fact counterproductive to U.S. interests, because it is illegal."

The House promptly cut off all contra aid. The Republican-dominated Senate appropriated $50 million. And a compromise -- $24 million -- was eventually granted.

Then, Boland learned that Nicaragua's harbors had been mined months previously by the CIA without informing either the House or Senate intelligence committees. He took the floor on April 14, 1984: "The first announcement -- the first announcement -- of the mining was made by the contras -- the contras -- not by the Intelligence Committee, not by the CIA, not from the briefings that we heard, but made by the contras on Jan. 8 ... Acts of war by the United States against Nicaragua are wrong, absolutely wrong."

"The instinct to deceive overwhelmed them," says Moynihan about the administration.

"I think the whole committee was distressed," says Boland. The atmosphere was one of "shocked disillusion," says Moynihan. Sen. Barry Goldwater, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent Casey a letter expressing the collective dismay.

Boland himself was prompted to introduce the toughest version of the Boland Amendment. Its intent, as understood by the committee, was never in doubt.

"The notion that it might be ambiguous was never broached in any conversation in the Intelligence Committee," says Moynihan. "The matter was thought settled, a policy was thought reversed."

"You could make a technical argument that it was not specific enough, but one has to strain to reach that conclusion," says Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The loophole that Reagan now claims, that the NSC was not included in the amendment and therefore not subject to its fiat, was never thought to be a loophole by Congress. By law and history the NSC served the president solely as an advisory body, and thus lay beyond congressional oversight. Nobody imagined that the NSC would be transformed into "the Enterprise."

The administration, according to Cohen, has created "a Catch 22 problem": It insisted that the NSC was not operational, and now argues that the Boland Amendment did not apply because it failed to mention the NSC. "Sophistic," says Cohen about this logic. "They transfer the activities to the NSC and say they are not covered by the Boland Amendment."

"The amendment," says Boland, "is crystal clear."

But the administration refused to consider the issue settled. It followed a two-track policy.

In public, it sought congressional approval of military and "humanitarian" aid to the contras. In the aftermath of Reagan's landslide reelection, a decisive bloc of House Democrats quivered and, in 1986, voted for $100 million in contra funding, which passed. "No, $100 million does not buy a contra victory," said Boland during the debate. "It buys continued fighting to no apparent conclusion."

Meanwhile, in private, the administration constructed "the Enterprise" to transgress the Boland Amendment and covertly finance the contra war. Soon, Reagan's men were found on the doorstep of the Ayatollah Khomeini, offering arms for alms.

In the end, the improbable man turns out to have been the inevitable man. When confronted with what he came to regard as a reign of deception, he could not turn away.

On the opening day of the select committee's hearings, Arthur Liman, the Senate chief counsel, watched Boland quietly assume his seat. "The first witness who sees Boland will have a heart attack," he said offhandedly.

But the administration has disputed the amendment's relevance. Witnesses like former North aide Robert Owen -- "the Courier" -- trace the origin of the entire affair to Congress, which acted "wrongly in stopping funds for the effort." Conservative opinion-makers offer similar jibes.

Yet the official who was supposed to "monitor Ollie," Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams -- "Mr. Kenilworth" -- told the panel that the amendment applied to everyone in the administration.

On June 8 another witness, Bretton Sciaroni, the counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, confessed that his September 1985 classified opinion that the amendment did not apply to the NSC was based on superficial and incomplete evidence. Still, he clung to his opinion. Sciaroni explained that he had flunked the bar exam four times, that this was his debut at analyzing legislation and that his was the only legal analysis of the amendment made by the administration.

"Very useful," said Boland of Sciaroni's testimony. "Very enlightening."

As the crisis builds, so does the heated ideological contention around the Boland Amendment.

To which Edward P. Boland simply replies: "It is the law."