Washington — Congressman Claude Pepper, the Ralph Nader of America's retirees, likes to tell a story about the days when he was just a pup in politics. His mentor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, taught him an important lesson in public opinion, he says: ''When fishing, keep the bait far enough in front of the fish to keep him interested, but not so far you lose the fish.''
In his half-century in Congress, first in the Senate and now in the House, Mr. Pepper has played that fish for all it's worth to reel in votes and public support for his causes.
On Thursday, the Florida Democrat will be trolling for a big one. A gala fund-raiser is scheduled in Washington to help endow the Claude and Mildred Pepper Eminent Scholars Chair in Gerontology at Florida State University (FSU). Bob Hope will be the master of ceremonies that night for an all-star evening that includes some of the most famous older Americans: Walter Cronkite, Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Milton Berle, Pearl Bailey, Robert Young, Armand Hammer, Norman Vincent Peale, former ambassador Averell Harriman, and United States House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts.
Speaker O'Neill shambled into a recent Doubleday Press party for Pepper, giving off warmth, bear hugs, and shouts of ''Where's the author? Where's the beef?'' Camera shutters clicked like Geiger counters as photographers shot O'Neill and Pepper, the author. Nearby sat stacks of ''Ask Claude Pepper.'' That's his new book based on a folksy, syndicated newspaper column that Pepper, longtime chairman of the House Special Committee on Aging, wrote with his staff to answer questions most asked by his national constituency of older Americans.
This is the ''Prime of Rep. Claude Pepper'' for the legendary octogenarian, who has made the red-bordered cover of Time magazine twice - as an FDR New Dealer in 1938, and in '83, as spokesman for the elderly.
Claude Denson Pepper ankles briskly into his Miami office one humid Monday morning and begins a day scheduled to wilt a whippersnapper half his age. He is what the Irish call ''fresh looking,'' a lively guy who is always crisply turned out; this day, in a meticulously cut navy-blue blazer with gray trousers, white shirt, and navy tie with a wing motif. He is a courtly Southern gentleman with sparse white hair (''snow on the roof,'' he calls it) and mild, blue eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses.
Pepper talks effortlessly, the cadences and detailed statistics flowing along , nonstop, in a resonant baritone. Occasionally his deep Southern drawl becomes so thick it's as though he's speaking through a mouthful of candied yams. But he always senses the moment and stops to translate, as in his story about riding ''booyellins'' as a farm boy. He repeats it patiently for the Yankee ear, almost spelling it out: riding bull yearlings as a little boy in Dudleyville, Ala.
''I used to say in my first campaign for the Senate that I was born and reared on a farm in east Alabama, went to a one-teacher country school where I usually walked or rode a horse (Maude), and for lunch ate out of a tin bucket. For dessert I bored a hole in a biscuit with my index finger and filled it full of ribbon-cane syrup out of a Mackey Boy snuffbox.'' He delivers the lines in real stem-winder style and then unspools a chuckle, a real heh-heh-heh, at the memory.
Pepper is a son of the century, born in 1900. He says in some amazement: ''If you look back, almost everything that we call modern life, all the great miracles of invention and discovery, development, that we enjoy today, almost all of them came into major use (he thumps his desk), or came into use entirely, in my lifetime.''
When he was a tadpole, ''the automobile was just barely coming into use. In my lifetime we've developed paved roads; and you know I still think, when you smoothly run along a paved road at 60 miles an hour - uh, 55 - I still think that's wonderful. And of course when you ride in an airplane, 500 or 600 miles an hour, and all these instant things, communications satellites, so you can see something here that occurred on the other side of the world, and all the computers and the like, the wildest imagination would hardly predict what is likely to be when I get to be a century old, what is going to be in my next century of life!''
He hasn't done badly in the century he started with. He remembers picking cotton in the fields, and how the family moved from Dudleyville to Texas, where he saw his first cowboys, ''horn-ned'' frogs, and ''northers,'' in Commanche County.
There were some real northers in his life before he reached his goal: Congress. His sister, Sarah Pepper Willis of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., remembers how their father's illness meant the end of his job, ''and Claude had the entire family on him. When he was at college (the University of Alabama) I would sit on my mother's knee and she would open a letter that Claude had pinned a $5 bill to and she would cry. He'd be up at 4 a.m. shoveling coal in the mines, and then he'd be in the college mess hall at work at 7 a.m. In the summer he sold Fuller brushes. He went to Harvard with $100 and two suits - one blue, one gray. They got so old you could see through them. I can't tell you enough about that wonderful man.''
Pepper had been president of the University of Alabama student body, and decided on Harvard ''out of the blind feeling that if that was the greatest law school in the United States, I wanted to go. And the Lord was good to me - I worked out a way to get to go.''
After working his way through Harvard Law School, he taught law at the University of Arkansas to kids like William Fulbright, later chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Next, he settled into a country law practice in Tallahassee, Fla., and was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1928.
Pepper also remembers what helped ''dis-elect'' him from the legislature: casting ''my first civil rights vote'' against legislation censuring Lou Henry Hoover, the President's wife, for inviting the wife of a black congressman to a White House lawn tea. After five years of beavering away at the Florida Bar Association and in Democratic politics, he was elected to the US Senate in 1936.
Pepper had also been running for bridegroom, competing for five years with a legal and political rival for Mildred Irene Webster of St. Petersburg. His longtime administrative assistant, Fran Campbell, says he told her that he proposed to Mildred as she recovered from an illness, ''because I had to catch her when she was weak.'' Kathleen Jamieson, Pepper's former press secretary and author of ''Packaging the Presidency,'' remembers Mrs. Pepper kidding that she wasn't sure whether it was the political or romantic triumph that pleased him the most. They married shortly before he became senator. Dr. Jamieson says: ''He loved two things in his life, his wife and Congress. Losing her (in 1979) was a terrible tragedy for him.''
Another story Dr. Jamieson recalls about Senator-elect Pepper: It was the Great Depression, and Pepper, who owned only one suit, walked into a New York men's clothing store and mortgaged his next several Senate paychecks to pay for three suits ''so he wouldn't embarrass the people of his state.''
His laurels include his reputation as a Senate powerhouse of the New Deal; his mandatory-retirement bill; the original concept of ''meals on wheels'' for seniors; and the introduction of World War II lend-lease legislation. His Senate career ended up abruptly in 1950 in what he calls ''the first victory in the use of McCarthyism'' by his opponent, Floyd Smathers, whom he had helped run for the House. ''He tried to destroy me,'' Pepper says. ''But my feeling is let bygones be bygones. ... I've got too much to do to spend my time hating anybody.''
Pepper returned as a congressman 12 years later, became a spokesman for the elderly, and recently gave up chairmanship of that cherished House Committee on Aging for a wider sphere of influence as head of the powerful House Rules Committee.
Former Senator Smathers, now a Washington lawyer, calls Pepper ''the great champion of the elderly, energetic, steadfast, dedicated.'' In fact, Mr. Smathers contributes to Pepper's campaigns and is on the committee for the Pepper fund-raiser on Thursday.
With the dinner, his new book, the Pepper gerontology chair at FSU, and the new Claude and Mildred Pepper Library there, plus barnstorming the nation for Democratic candidates and running himself, it's a brisk fall for Pepper. And already, Doubleday is asking him to start work on his memoirs. His sister, Sarah , asks, ''Claude, how do you keep up?'' His answer: ''I thought you knew, darlin' - the good Lord sits on both shoulders.''