I HAD NEVER met Ronald Reagan until two weeks after he was elected president, when he came to my office on a courtesy visit to the speaker of the House. I knew of him, of course, and I remembered him as the congenial television host of General Electric Theater, which my wife, Millie, and I used to watch on Sunday nights during the 1950s. I had also seen Reagan's political debut on television during the 1964 campaign, when he gave a tremendously effective speech for Barry Goldwater a week before the election.

That meeting with Reagan had the same purpose as Jimmy Carter's visit to my office four years earlier, when he was elected. But whereas Carter had come to learn about the Congress, my strongest recollection of the Reagan visit is that while it was good-humored and amiable, it was also perfunctory. Reagan's people had obviously told him that it was appropriate for the president-elect to call on the speaker of the House, but he didn't come seeking any knowledge or any ideas. I could have been speaking Latin for all he seemed to care.

Before Reagan left my office that day, I let him know that although we came from different parties, I looked forward to working with him. I reminded him that I had always been on good terms with the Republican leadership, and that despite our various disagreements in the House, we were always friends after 6 o'clock and on weekends.

The president-elect seemed to like that formulation, and over the next six years he would often begin our telephone discussions by saying, "Hello, Tip, is it after 6 o'clock?"

"Absolutely, Mr. President," I would respond. Our watches must have been in sync, because even with our many intense political battles, we managed to maintain a pretty good friendship.

The second time I met Reagan was the day he was inaugurated, when he came to my office to change clothes after being sworn in. This time, we had a little chat about my desk.

The speaker is one of three public officials in the nation (along with the vice president and the chief justice of the Supreme Court) with the right to borrow historic artifacts from the government. At the Smithsonian Institution, Eleanor Kelley, my personal secretary, found a huge oak desk that had belonged to President Grover Cleveland and we arranged to have it assembled and reconditioned. During my years as speaker, that desk dominated my office and was a terrific conversation piece.

After I told President Reagan about the desk, he said, "That's very interesting. You know, I once played Grover Cleveland in the movies."

"No, Mr. President," I said, "You're thinking of Grover Cleveland Alexander, the ball player." Coincidentally, I had just seen "That Winning Season," an old Ronald Reagan movie, on late-night television.

Unlike the other presidents I have known, Ronald Reagan always seemed distant from the details of public policy and legislation. Give the choice, he invariably preferred to talk about sports and the movies. "Tip," he'd say, "let me tell you the latest," and he'd come up with yet another story about the World Series, or football or show business.

I once attended a dinner party at the White House where a group of us were discussing political affairs while the president just sat there in silence. There was an awkward feeling in the room, so to bring him into the conversation I asked him a question about his old Hollywood days. The transformation was amazing, as though I had switched on a light. He suddenly became animated and entertained us with great stories for the rest of the evening.

And for a fellow his age I've never met a man in better physical condition. I touched his arm one day and it was like iron. "Is this from chopping wood on your ranch?" I asked.

He nodded, and with real enthusiasm he described the special double-edged ax he liked to use. A few weeks later, when my daughter, Rosemary, asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told her about the president's ax, and said I just might go out to chop a little wood for our fireplace on Cape Cod. She bought me the ax, and on the first mild day after Christmas I went out back and started swinging. I survived about 15 minutes before I had to come inside, tired and sore.

They say that when Reagan was younger, he could hit a golf ball a mile. I'll say this: The Democrats were damn lucky that he and I never had to settle our disagreements with boxing gloves.

I'm convinced that the president's hardy constitution is what kept him alive after the attempt on his life on March 30, 1981, during the third month of his presidency.

I wanted to visit the president in the hospital, and I checked with the White House to make sure it was appropriate. Yes, I was told, come at 2 o'clock tomorrow, but please don't comment on the state of his health.

As a get-well gift, I brought the president a book of Irish humor. But I was shocked by his condition, which seemed much more serious than what had been announced. This was three days after the shooting, and he was clearly exhausted and in pain. I stayed only a moment, as he obviously was in no shape to receive visitors. I suspect that in the first day or two after the shooting he was probably closer to death than most of us realize. If he hadn't been so strong and hardy, it could have been all over.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan enjoyed a truly remarkable rookie year. He pushed through the greatest peacetime increase in defense spending in American history, together with the greatest cutbacks in domestic programs and the largest tax cuts this country had ever seen.

Reagan's success didn't happen by accident. The president was continually calling members of the House. He didn't always get his way, but his calls were never wasted. He was very effective on the phone, making almost as many calls as Lyndon Johnson did.

Another reason Reagan was so successful in getting his legislation passed was that he had strong, capable people around him, including Michael Deaver, Ed Meese, Jim Baker and David Stockman, among others. I didn't like their mean-spirited philosophy, but they knew where they were going and they knew how to get there. They put only one legislative ball in play at a time, and they kept their eye on it all the way through.

In 1981, everything I had fought for, everything I had believed in, was being cast aside.

The most depressing thing of all was the hatred for the poor that developed all across America. Almost overnight, there was a new and widespread hostility on the part of the haves toward the have-nots. I have worked all my life to help create a middle class, and suddenly that middle class was rebelling against the 10 or 15 percent of the population that hadn't yet made it. The administration had people believing that their fellow citizens were getting something for nothing.

What I had to get used to in 1981 was being criticized not only by the press but by the man on the street -- or, to be more precise, the man in the airport. I don't know why it happens, but air travelers are often in a foul mood, and during my various trips around the country, as I trudged through the passageways and terminals of the nation's airports, I was harassed by a continual stream of disgruntled people. Some shouted insults like "Leave the president alone, you fat bastard." Now and then, somebody would be supportive, but friendly voices were all too few.

To my amazement, I even had problems in Boston. At one point, to help the Boston Symphony in a fund-raising drive, I agreed to let them auction off a private lunch with the speaker of the House. The fellow who won paid something like $1,500 for that privilege. When he and his wife came to my office in the Capitol, I could see that she was very nervous. "Not now, dear," she kept whispering to her husband.

At the end of the meal, I said to them, "I'm delighted that you came here today. Tell me, how did you happen to bid on this lunch?"

The man looked at his wife for a moment, and then he turned to me and said, "Because I wanted to tell you to your face that you're a son of a bitch for being so tough on the president."

"Well," I said with a smile, "if you paid good money just to say that, it's all right with me."

A few days later, I received a thank-you letter from his wife, saying that I had been gracious and charming, and apologizing for her husband's rude behavior. But that's the kind of year I had in 1981.

Many people were shocked by how poorly the president performed during the first debate, in the 1984 campaign, but to me, that was the real Ronald Reagan. I've said it before, but this is my political testament, and I'll say it again here. Ronald Reagan lacked the knowledge he should have in every sphere, both domestic and international. Most of the time he was an actor reading lines, who didn't understand his own program. I hate to say it about such an agreeable man, but it was sinful that Ronald Reagan ever became president.

I'm not playing politics when I say these things, I have no more elections left, and Reagan doesn't either, so the Democrats have nothing to gain by these comments. But I've known every president since Harry Truman, and there's no question in my mind that Ronald Reagan was the worst. He wasn't without leadership ability, but he lacked most of the management skills that a president needs. But let me give him his due: He would have made a hell of a king.

We're talking about a man who went into meetings reading all his remarks from 3-by-5 cue cards. A couple of years ago, a prominent auto executive told me that just before the president flew to Japan, he met with the heads of the Big Three car companies. For the first few minutes of the meeting, Reagan was reading from cue cards -- but they were the wrong cards. His guests were so embarrassed that no one could bring himself to mention the mistake.

When Nixon and Carter used to meet with the congressional leaders, they would explain their legislative proposals in great detail. Ronald Reagan explained nothing. Whenever there was an issue of substance, he called on somebody else to discuss it for him. Now I myself have never been an expert on the specifics of legislation, but compared with this guy, I was a stickler for detail.

All the stories about Reagan's working only three or four hours a day made me wonder who was really in charge in the White House. I'll never forget that summer day in 1983, when Flight 007, the Korean airliner, was shot down by the Soviets. I was on Cape Cod, where Secretary of State George Shultz called me at 7 in the morning. After telling me what had happened, he said he was sending down a plane to bring me to Washington for an emergency meeting at the White House.

"I'll be ready," I said, "But what does the president think about this?"

"He's still asleep," said Shultz. "He doesn't know about it yet."

"You've got to be kidding," I said. "You mean you're calling me before you've even notified the president?"

"We'll tell him when he wakes up," said Shultz. To me, that comment spoke volumes.

But my biggest disappointment with Ronald Reagan's presidency is that he didn't grow in office. Back in 1981, I told him a disturbing story I had recently heard about a girl who had just graduated from high school with top honors. Both of her parents had died, and she was receiving a small Social Security check. But the Reagan budget had wiped out her college benefits, and she was stuck.

"That's terrible," said the president. He called in Ed Meese and asked me to repeat the story. "Ed," he said, "let's see if we can take care of this girl."

"Mr. President," I said, "I'm not here to talk about one girl. I'm using her as an example. There are thousands of people in that situation."

I still don't think he understands the point I was making. Ronald Reagan is a pushover for an individual hard-luck story, and he really did want to help that girl -- as long as it could be done through the private sector. At the same time, he also wanted to eliminate the program whereby she and thousands like her would have been helped.

There have been a number of similar situations. On several occasions, President and Mrs. Reagan have made personal appeals to help people in urgent need of organ transplants. But in January 1987, the president submitted a budget that cut out the recently-created Office of Organ Transplantation, as well as the national computer network that matched organ donors with waiting recipients. Both of these were low-budget programs that accomplished, fairly and effectively, what the president had tried to do on an ad hoc, personal basis.

From my point of view, the one bright spot in Reagan's second term was tax reform.

The president's men believed that tax reform would bring middle-class Americans so solidly behind the Republicans that it would actually realign the political parties.

As things turned out, the president had to drag the Republican House members along kicking and screaming, as the interests of their business associates and contributors were apparently more important to them than the fate of their party -- not to mention the state of the nation.

After the vote, I was struck by how much could be accomplished when the president and the speaker, coming from opposing parties but working together, could agree on specific legislation. Tax reform shifted $120 billion in tax burdens from individuals to corporations. This was one case where leadership made all the difference.

The invasion of Grenada was popular with many Americans. But today I feel even more strongly that we should not have invaded Grenada. Despite what the administration claimed, the students were never in danger. None of the students trapped in the second campus of the medical school for nearly two days after the invasion was harmed, and neither were any of the American residents on the island. But more than 100 American troops were killed or wounded in that operation. And as far as I can see, it was all because the White House wanted the country to forget about the tragedy in Beirut.

It was bad enough that Grenada was really about Lebanon. Unfortunately, that's not all it was about. My greatest fear about Reagan's foreign policy is that 10 years from now we'll look back on the Grenada incident as a dress rehearsal for our invasion of Nicaragua.

I'm not crazy about the Sandinistas, but their country was ravaged by the Somozas and their cronies for 45 years, when we virtually forced their people into servitude through our corporations. We're not responsible for all of their problems, but we certainly played a part.

This doesn't mean that I like or approve of President Daniel Ortega, either. He embarrassed a lot of his American supporters when he flew to Moscow in 1985. But does that mean we should be giving military aid to the contras?

The president calls them "freedom fighters," but that's ridiculous. In reality, they're a small ragtag army of racketeers, bandits and murderers who are led by some of the same people who ran the national guard under Somoza. They were thrown out of office, and now we're trying to put them back in.

Nicaragua really could be another Vietnam. It certainly won't be another Grenada. where it was all over in a matter of days. If we ever go into Nicaragua, all Americans will come to regret it.

Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) served in the House from 1952 until this year and as speaker since 1977. The preceeding is adapted from "Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill" by O'Neill and William Novak.