"I'm sorry that I'm late this evening, but I had to cast one more vote with a successful group against the MX missile," said Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), and the crowd at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association went wild with applause.

No one seemed to mind waiting for Pepper, who was there to receive this year's National Consumer League's Trumpeter Award. Turning his tardiness into a joke, yarn-spinner Pepper, flanked by actress Helen Hayes, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and NCL honorary president Esther Peterson, had the crowd roaring over the story of the duelist who receives a note from his delinquent opponent.

"And the note said, 'I'm going to be late. Go 'head and shoot,' " quipped Pepper.

"Senator Pepper -- and I will call him that," said Hayes referring to the congressman's former title and delighting the crowd with her witty tribute, "because he is such a strong lobbyist and supporter for my age group. And also, he's one of the few people older than I am -- he's one month and two days older -- and I love him for that."

The award, an abstract black-and-white trumpet framed in red, is given annually to a public champion of consumer rights. This year NCL chose octogenarian Pepper for his longstanding and outspoken defense of senior citizen's rights and his guardianship of Social Security benefits despite proposed cuts.

"We want somebody who marches to a different drummer, who stands out front on an issue," said NCL outgoing president Erma Angevine, "and he's Pepper led the liberal community for more years than anyone else. He sticks out there frequently."

This was the first party honoring the liberal leader since he left his chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Aging to head the House Rules Committee. Some detractors have heralded Pepper's departure as a defection from the causes he has so successfully lobbied for and legislated. But most of his supporters last night voiced their approval of the move.

"I think he'll be even more effective on the issues that are important to the American people, not only Social Security and welfare, but those that affect workers such as the minimum wage requirement," said NCL vice president Bert Seidman.

"I am here today because of the Claude Peppers of the world and their continuity in leadership," said Packwood, "and the honor that a few of us are privileged to inherit."

"The true southern aristocrats' distinguishing characteristic probably is that their hearts are set not on virtues which make surviving possible, but on those which make it worthwhile," said Hayes, quoting author William Alexander Percy as she and Packwood presented the award.

"I have to pinch myself to see if I am really here or if this is just a dream," said Pepper.

"You're here," shouted someone in the crowd.