Some say Claude Pepper's finest hour was last December at the White House Conference on Aging. Balding, bifocaled, a hearing aid in each ear and a pacemaker in his chest, the 81-year-old Congressman from Florida was seated as honorary co-chairman and might have seemed to be a figurehead. But not for mincing his words has Pepper become the nation's most powerful and prominent octogenarian. Pepper had detected what he regarded as a quiet Reagan Administration effort to tilt the meeting in favor of cutting Social Security benefits for the nation's 25 million elderly. Rising to his full 5'8" and even greater heights of oratory, he sailed into his foes with an elaborate anecdote and closed with a ringing quote from Robert Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra: "Grow old along with me."

"I'm not grandstanding," says Pepper, aware that some Reaganauts see more rhetoric than reason behind his cause. "This isn't a matter of vanity with me. I don't think of myself as an old person. But these people need someone to listen to them. They need a voice." Indeed, since assuming the chair of the House Select Committee on Aging late in 1976, Pepper has become the country's most vocal paladin of the elderly. He led successful fights to eliminate the mandatory retirement age of 65, to cut Amtrak fares for senior citizens, and to do away with Social Security penalties for widowed oldsters who chose remarriage rather than living together. He is by far the oldest member of Congress and is the originator of the slogan "Ageism is as odious as racism or sexism." He writes a nationally syndicated column, "Ask Claude Pepper," and lists his home phone number in both Washington and Miami to better minister to his troubled flock.

These days the salty legislator's office is logging up to 200 calls and 400 letters a day—not just from the nation's elderly, but from widows, orphans and the disabled who depend on Social Security benefits. In defense of Social Security, Pepper has gone toe to toe in committee hearings with Reagan's top aides, including Budget Director David Stockman and Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker. Last summer Pepper out-maneuvered the White House, persuading Congress to restore the $122-per-month minimum benefit that the Administration had tried to kill. A chastened Reagan retreated to network TV last fall to hastily reaffirm his support for the sanctity of Social Security. The President may have temporarily ducked the political hot potato, but Pepper is in no mood for compromise. "You watch," he says. "This House won't provide for Social Security cuts. I don't care what Mr. Reagan recommends."

With 36 million Social Security recipients behind Pepper, few politicians are willing to argue the point publicly—even if the Social Security system itself faces bankruptcy unless there is either a reform or an immense transfusion of funds. "I refuse to believe that a country as rich and powerful as ours cannot guarantee the basic comfort of its older citizens," says Pepper, who hopes that an economic recovery will eventually resuscitate the troubled system. Counters a White House aide: "Mr. Pepper refuses to face cold hard financial facts and to act responsibly on Social Security." When Pepper is asked about such proposed reforms as cutting cost-of-living adjustments, increasing Social Security payroll taxes, or delaying retirement, his answer remains the same: "We ought to leave Social Security just as it is."

Pepper first came to Washington in 1936, a year after the Social Security Act was passed. His own early life had convinced him of the program's worth. The eldest of four children of an Alabama farmer, he attended the University of Alabama (where he was Phi Beta Kappa) and Harvard Law School, then moved to Florida in 1925 to practice law and later run successfully for the state legislature. The family had sacrificed to send him to school. As his father's income ebbed in the Depression, Claude assumed the burden of putting his brothers and sister through college, then caring for his parents until their deaths. Says Pepper: "I know something about the poverty and problems of old people."

He lost his first bid for the Senate in 1934 by just 4,050 votes. But when Sen. Duncan Fletcher died in office in 1936, Pepper was elected to serve out the term. In 1938, in a campaign that garnered national attention as a referendum on the New Deal, Pepper was returned for a full term. "I reckon I grew up under Roosevelt," he says. Pepper served as FDR's point man in the Senate but, predictably, his liberalism caught up with him in the Deep South. In 1950 opponent George Smathers launched a vitriolic campaign that labeled Claude "Red" Pepper a "spellbinding pinko." "One time," Pepper remembers, "I was with Paul Robeson and a photographer asked him to stand next to me for a picture. I knew just what they were doing. But I thought I'd be damned if I'd move." Smathers easily defeated Senator Pepper.

Mildred, Pepper's wife since 1936, saw him through the next 12 years away from Washington while he set up lucrative law practices in Tallahassee and Miami. In 1962 he returned to the Capitol as a freshman Congressman. "It makes me believe in a beneficent Providence," he reflects. "If I'd been reelected in 1950, in two years I would have been chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and president pro tern of the Senate. But what would I have accomplished? I've come back to the House and been able to raise the hopes of older people. You don't better the lives of ordinary people as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee."

His comeback was darkened by Mildred's death in 1979. "I've been very lonesome," says the Congressman, who still talks of his spouse as "the prettiest Senate wife" and has left all of her furniture and keepsakes in place. But he has simplified his routine; he breakfasts on peanut butter, crackers and tomato soup in his Washington home, then takes lunch on the Hill and dinner at one of his private clubs. For exercise he walks from his office to the Capitol and plays a round of golf on Sunday. He goes "to the same parties Mildred and I used to attend." For the most part, he copes with loneliness by putting in 15-hour workdays and speaking to thousands of elderly around the nation each month.

This fall Pepper faces reelection opposition from two Cuban refugees now vying for the GOP ticket. If the voters in his heavily minority 14th District, which includes Miami and Miami Beach, return him to the House, he will be in line for the chairmanship of the House Rules Committee—one of Capitol Hill's most powerful jobs. While he has not yet announced his candidacy, Pepper makes no secret of the platform he'll run on: "Standing up for Social Security is consistent with my whole political career," he says. "I'm not at this point in time going to change my convictions."