White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson, sporting black flats, her customary French braids and a gardenia corsage, linked her arm through that of Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill last night as she guided him down the Capital Hilton stairs, discussing just how long she had known her escort.

"Well, let's see now," said Peterson. "I've known Tip ever since Kennedy moved to the Senate. Before Tip was a big-shot," she laughed, "which makes it about 30 years."

"Fifty, darlin'," countered O'Neill, chucking her under the chin. "And you're as beautiful now as you were then."

"Now, Tip, stop it," giggled Peterson, before turning to assure an observer that "he's always been like this. But this time, I know my leg is being stretched... stretched... stretched."

Two of Washington's oldest friends got together once again last night when the National Consumer's League honored O'Neill with its Trumpeter Award at a reception following the league's 79th annual meeting held earlier in the day. And although O'Neill said he was duly honored, he admitted he had come to the reception thinking he was supposed to present the award to Peterson.

"I really didn't know this award was for me tonight until I got here," O'Neill informed a cocktail crowd of over 100. "I was supposed to be on a plane tonight with 45 other congressmen on our way to Boston. Nordy Hoffman (former Notre Dame All-American and currently the Senate's sergeant-at-arms) is being inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. But when my staff told me I was to give the award to Esther... well, here I am."

"I don't like that," retorted Peterson. "I'm for truth in advertising."

Peterson has been a member of the league since 1920. At that time it was called the Consumer League for Fair Labor Standards, and Peterson, as she recalled last night, was "fighting for the gals in the sweat shops. They were getting $4 a week and $1.32 for making 12 dresses. I'll never forget it."

Since those days, however, the league has not only changed its name, but grown, quadrupling its budget from $33,000 to $120,000 in the last two years, according to Sandra Willett, executive vice president. Willet added that O'Neill had been chosen for the Trumpeter Award because of his strong efforts to get the Office of Consumer Representation bill passed in the House of Representatives. That bill, however, failed to pass by 25 votes.

Once at the reception -- for whatever reason -- O'Neill lost no time politicking and shaking hands, while Peterson kept him supplied with drinks. Chatting with one guest about the recent elections, O'Neill said he analyzed them as "corresponding to the grassroots of America as it moves back toward the center."

But for Texas electing a Republican governor (Bill Clements, who spent an estimated $6 million on his campaign), well, Democrat O'Neill was not so conciliatory. "On occasion, things in politics can be purchased. That happens in a democracy, you know."