Shortly before he retired as speaker of the House in 1986, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. was asked how he wanted his career to be remembered. He replied that he was someone who "came {to Washington} with a certain set of ideas and he stayed with them all the way."

As tributes poured in yesterday following the death Wednesday night of the 81-year-old Massachusetts Democrat, that -- and much more -- of O'Neill's legacy seemed secure. President Clinton, who was also dealing with the unexpected death of his mother, Virginia Kelley, a few hours after O'Neill died, issued a statement calling him "our beloved former speaker."

"He loved politics and government because he saw how politics and government could make a difference in people's lives," Clinton said. "And he loved people most of all -- his neighbors, his constituents and his family."

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) called O'Neill "a politician's politician" and said the compliment he valued most was "when Tip O'Neill called me his pal." Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) described him as "a congressman's congressman," adding that while they might seem an odd ideological couple, "Tip and I were the best of friends."

Indeed, the most common theme in the torrent of tributes to O'Neill yesterday concerned the lasting friendships he nurtured across ideological and partisan divides. For while O'Neill was certainly the quintessential big-city Irish politician, and a creature of the House he loved so much, he was above all an old-fashioned man, a gentleman.

"I leave with no rancor in my heart for anyone," he said in his farewell address to the House.

Nothing better illustrated the O'Neill style -- a key to his political skill and success -- than his relationship with President Ronald Reagan. For six years, until O'Neill's retirement as speaker, the two battled relentlessly. O'Neill once described Reagan as "probably the least knowledgeable of any president" he had known, yet their often bitter political disputes never turned personal and, out of office, the old warriors exchanged telephone greetings on their birthdays.

"He'd be thrilled that he'd get right through to Reagan," recalled Andrew Athy, a partner with O'Neill's son, Christopher, in a Washington law firm where the retired speaker had an office.

"That was his very nature," Athy added. "He could find good in almost anybody. I think it was his strength. It allowed him to work with people."

O'Neill needed all of his skill in dealing with people during his 10 years as speaker. The House in 1976 was a vastly different institution than the one O'Neill entered more than two decades earlier, filled with ambitious, young self-described "reformers" bent on changing the rules.

But O'Neill, whose background in the rough-and-tumble world of Massachusetts politics was hardly that of reformer, did not resist change and helped make the House more open and less oligarchic. "He had a remarkable ability to adapt to change," said Kirk O'Donnell, his former longtime aide.

A more severe test came with Reagan's election in 1980. With Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate, O'Neill, as head of the demoralized but still majority House Democrats, became his party's most visible leader.

He did not seem to fit the role. With his great thatch of white hair, ruddy jowls and bulbous nose, he looked like a florid ward heeler, a symbol of the politics of the past and a perfect foil for the "great communicator" in the White House.

But, reluctantly at first, O'Neill took on the task as chief spokesman for the opposition to an enormously popular president, gradually bringing himself and his party back from the low point of 1980. He held the Democrats on Capitol Hill together in those years -- his party gained 15 House seats between 1980 and 1986. In the process, in the words of current Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), O'Neill became "the first contemporary speaker of the House," the nationally recognized voice of congressional Democrats.

What sustained O'Neill through these battles, said Susan Brophy, a White House official who knew him well, was the "steadfastness" of his beliefs, that "certain set of ideas" to which he clung.

"He was an old-fashioned politician, but he had a deep and abiding sense of purpose," Brophy said. "Some people here don't even know why they were elected."

This does not mean that O'Neill was an ideologue, O'Donnell said. "He had very firm convictions, but they were drawn from his commitment to people, not ideas," he said. Chief among those convictions, shaped by O'Neill's experience as the son of a working-class family that lived through the Great Depression, was his belief "that government had a role in helping those who couldn't help themselves," O'Donnell said.

Even in retirement, O'Neill did not lose his zest for politics or people. He did what he could to help Clinton win House approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instantly recognizable, he was sought out by strangers on the street. "I never saw anyone give as much lift to people when they met him," Athy said.

"Of all the people I have known, Tip O'Neill knew best how to enjoy politics," recalled former president Jimmy Carter, the only Democratic president during O'Neill's tenure as speaker and with whom he had a sometimes rocky relationship. "Tip O'Neill was a man who personified the finest of American politics."

In a television interview days before his death, O'Neill joked, "I'm falling apart at the seams," but added that his wife of 52 years, Millie, had told him, " 'Listen, nobody wants to hear about your troubles. You look good.' So listen, I look good."

He was a "jolly good fellow," said his longtime adversary and close friend, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).

Special correspondent Christopher B. Daly in Boston contributed to this report.