Somehow Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) knew the last days of his 28 years in Congress would be marked by an executive slap. Months ago, the Bush administration promised to veto the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 if the version Hawkins cosponsored was sent to the White House. It happened Monday.

Bush issued his three-page veto message and Hawkins immediately issued his two-sentence reply. He had prepared it Thursday, two days before the bill went to the White House, and in his blunt, succinct fashion he called Bush the leader of "a national retreat from civil rights. ... By relying on the same shopworn excuses and code words that were offered against every great piece of civil rights legislation, George Bush plays on the worst of America's fears, and the worst of America's prejudices."

Riding back to Capitol Hill the day of the veto, fresh from delivering a tough and, he insisted, cautiously optimistic view of the country's support of education, he was livid about the backsliding of civil rights.

"The latest wrinkle, and that is in Bush's bill, is a concept he calls customer preference," says Hawkins. Although the specific phrase has been eliminated from the alternative bill the White House sent to the Hill last weekend, Hawkins says the idea of a preference is simply an updated endorsement of bigotry. This provision would have allowed businesses to argue that they were responding to their clientele's wishes when charged with discrimination.

"That's how far we've drifted and fallen," said Hawkins, seeing the phantom of the no-blacks-allowed signs he saw on the road from Los Angeles to Sacramento on his way to the state Assembly 56 years ago. "This is the latest offer from the president as to what he wants in the civil rights bill. We are better off not passing it."

That's the tenor of Gus Hawkins's final days on Capitol Hill: He is disappointed but not defeated. At 83, he is the oldest member of Congress, and the senior black elected official in the country. He is the dean of the 23-member Congressional Black Caucus and the 45-member California House delegation.

Now, his official portrait has been hung in the Rayburn Building, the ritual of testimonials has begun, but the work on Hawkins's other priorities -- an omnibus education bill and a sweeping child-care bill -- is unfinished. Plus, Gus and Elsie Hawkins haven't had time to decide whether to live in Washington or Los Angeles. "I thought I would be winding down," said Hawkins, as he shuttled down the hall, a list of conference committee meetings rustling in his hand.

Hawkins has been trading brickbats with presidents and their surrogates for most of his congressional career, but recently he has had to pitch harder. Consider this scene in the meeting room of the House Education and Labor Committee, Hawkins's domain for six years and the site of many of the barbs, victories and setbacks:

One morning last spring Hawkins listened to Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos defend Bush's education proposals and then chop up Chairman Hawkins's own alternative measure. Hawkins, resting his head on the back of a huge black leather chair, followed the prepared statement, not catching Cavazos's eye. He shifted, signaling enough was enough.

"You did excellent up to Page 10. Then you went off the deep end," Hawkins lectured, the tremor of a chortle edging through his husky voice. "You overstepped on partisanship. You attacked the committee. We did include four of the president's initiatives."

Ultimately, Hawkins incorporated the administration's wish to have a merit schools program, but he limited the incentive program to schools that help educationally disadvantaged children. The bill is currently in conference committee.

The Hawkins legacy is a catalogue of successes in civil rights, education and labor laws. He helped draft Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, originally opposed by Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He got a job training bill passed during the Carter administration, but he had to fight the president, most of his Cabinet and the Council of Economic Advisers. His landmark is the Humphrey-Hawkins employment bill in 1978, which was a long struggle and about which Hawkins now has strong second thoughts. He successfully organized an override when President Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988. And after almost a decade of inaction, and a presidential veto by Bush, a bill to raise the minimum wage was passed last year. Hawkins, who had altered his original goals for the bill, had to live with the results but called the "training wage" component -- a sub-minimum wage for new workers -- disgusting.

His decision to retire, announced in January, was partially born of frustration from seeing his ideas about the family, workers and schools become legislation but get butchered in the process.

"The whole problem today is implementation. The ordinary citizen can have more to do with that than I can," says Hawkins. This exasperation, tempered with a thick coat of political realism, ran through a discussion of his career earlier this year. "Plus the fact I have reached a certain age. I can't expect to be around another six or eight years. I can do my own thing in another way." There's also a twinkle of relief in taking leave from politics, because in the next breath he is lustfully describing tending the 65 rose bushes at his country home on Solomons Island, Md., and life aboard his 33-foot La Mia. "In Spanish it means 'mine,' " he says, and there's the irony -- the quest for control that's still elusive no matter how high your seniority or how right-sounding the subject.

In his mild way, Hawkins is still surprised that the game of politics took such a hold on him. "It isn't that I preferred from the very beginning to be in politics or even public office, but once having been elected I suppose it got into my system and I tried to make the best of it," he says, playing down his personal satisfaction, the exact opposite of how his allies describe his dedication to his causes.

"When I think of Gus Hawkins, I think of the congressman who is the real champion of poor kids in this country," says David Leiderman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber calls his record "monumental." "He has set the moral tone" on family and working-family issues, says William Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"He is not just someone who votes correctly but is someone who is always on the front lines on behalf of civil rights legislation, and he has been extraordinarily effective," says Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Even his opposition acknowledges Hawkins's commitment. "Although we have had strong disagreements with Gus Hawkins about such things as more choice in education, more flexibility for school districts in the use of federal funds, and more focus on results rather than regulation, we have never once doubted his enduring commitment to seeking the best for the disadvantaged and handicapped children of America," says Ted Sanders, the undersecretary of education.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), whose father served with Hawkins in the California Assembly, has seen the disappointment building up over the years. "He believed the Congress has given up its commitment to working people, poor people and children. In 1981 he spoke out forcefully against reconciliation {cuts}. And when the committee was given its first reconciliation message under the budget, he said, 'You do it without me,' " says Miller, who still disagrees with his mentor over the funding mechanism for child care.

Hawkins says what counts are not the headlines, not a high profile -- and he was conspicuously absent from all the network sound bites on the civil rights veto -- and not the label. He is viewed as a stalwart liberal who receives a zero rating from the American Conservative Union -- though they applaud his vote for the Stealth bomber -- and a low cumulative rating of 19 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a 95 percent from Americans for Democratic Action. What Hawkins is proud of is his trademark of gentlemanly communication and philosophical persistence. "You find out that results pay off in the long run, and it is better for the system itself," he says.

Of course, there's a downside to modesty. When the Hawkins-Stafford Act, a renewal of major education programs, was passed in 1988, Hawkins wasn't recognized at the White House signing ceremony. He was clearly annoyed by the snub. Outraged, Democratic leaders organized their own signing party on the Hill. "In effect I did {feel angry}, and you can't work on anything as hard as we did for a year or so and have someone else come and take the full credit. ... In a sense I felt violated. Yet I never try to hold grudges, and you find at some other time it works to your benefit. Later times we were able to override the president's veto, and I would say, 'That is going to pay you back, Mr. President.' " Color & Compromise Before politics, Hawkins learned perseverance in a uniquely black American fashion. He is so fair-skinned that he is often mistaken for white. Hawkins, whose grandfather was a white British explorer, is short with a firm, boxy physique, a pale pink complexion, with enough color to give a white mustache and slight lawn of white hair a shade of backdrop.

Yet the errors of others have haunted him to the point where he described himself as an "outcast." As a youth in Louisiana, Hawkins watched the streetcar conductor move the "blacks only" sign behind his seat so he ended up sitting in the white section. He was so embarrassed and angry he started walking, his exercise of choice today.

"In a very reactionary, segregated background, one often reacted in a very explosive manner. You had to really learn through patience," says Hawkins. To protect him and his two brothers and one sister, his father, Nyzana Hawkins, a pharmacist, moved the family from Shreveport to Los Angeles when Gus was 11.

As an adult he tried a disarming directness on this issue of color confusion. He tells the story of how a white woman on a bus in Los Angeles kept moving closer to him. "And then she said, 'You know, we sure are getting a lot of blacks in this neighborhood. I don't like sitting next to them because they smell.' " Hawkins said he asked if he smelled and she said no. He asked her what she would think if he told her he was black and she answered, " 'I wouldn't believe you.' "

This predicament is not exclusively a white-to-black mistake but can happen with other blacks as well. A week after the Watts riots in 1965, the action that brought his congressional district into the nation's living rooms, Hawkins was walking through a playground when he thought a group of thugs was preparing to attack him. His companions set them straight. "I wasn't really thinking," he says, adding that he thinks the problem of mistaken identity is someone else's stupidity. "It is a mark of ignorance that {some people think} all blacks are black. Sometimes I educate."

Hawkins graduated from UCLA in 1931 with a degree in economics and worked as a soda jerk and a real estate agent before being elected to the California Assembly in 1934. He spent 28 years there and was responsible for segregation-shattering housing legislation, had domestic workers included in the worker-compensation system and wrote the California Fair Employment Practices Act.

But an assembly seat did not guarantee isolation from racial insult. A colleague invited Hawkins to a Los Angeles club, then disinvited him because the club excluded blacks. Hawkins was insulted, angry and stayed home. Later he and his colleague successfully urged the club to rescind its practices, and the two worked together to overturn the law requiring a photo submission with the civil service examination. "You don't want to lose the contact," says Hawkins, emphasizing the practical over the painful.

In 1959 Hawkins missed becoming the speaker of the Assembly by two votes. Three years later he was elected to Congress, becoming the first black representative from a Western state. Despite his commitment to black people, still the heart of his constituency although his district will show a phenomenal growth in Latino population in the 1990 census, he hasn't traded on racial guilt or provocation. Says Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.): "He has never focused on race only. That brings him a great degree of credibility. Gus is viewed as one who will accommodate reasonable requests. He doesn't bring bias if he believes there are legitimate concerns."

Being a skilled compromiser can also mean getting caught on a political merry-go-round. When President Bush's current education proposal came to the committee, Hawkins sat down with Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.), trying to find the middle ground. "I said, Bill, I don't think he's doing anything worth a damn. However, I will try to work something out with you as long as it is new money. I sent that back to my Democrats and I didn't get a single one who wanted to do that. They said that's crazy. I had to agree with them," says Hawkins. "There I am in the embarrassing situation of trying to be bipartisan, trying to cooperate with the president, and I can't get the votes on my committee." Landmarks & Boomerangs In his office, dressed in the standard congressional uniform of blue shirt, blue tie and gray suit, Hawkins discusses how angry he is at the fate of his legislative babies.

Take the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "The EEOC is worthless," spits out Hawkins. "We stopped monitoring them and calling them before the committee." He has even stopped advising his constituents to file complaints with the agency. "It got embarrassing. People will tell us, 'We filed a complaint because you told us to, but no action' -- it wasn't even investigated," says Hawkins. He says he was losing credibility.

Indeed, he could kick himself for giving a platform before his own committee to critics of his programs. "Clarence Thomas was terrible," he says of the former EEOC chairman. "Look, we made a judge out of him! He came, he took the heat, and he became a judge."

The clearest example of Hawkins's patience and frustration is the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which called for a national policy of reducing unemployment and inflation. It all started at one of those ubiquitous Washington cocktail parties, which Hawkins praises as the source of several legislative pairings.

"I had introduced a jobs bill. {Sen. Hubert} Humphrey had introduced a planning bill. We got to chatting, and for some reason I don't know which one of us suggested, 'Well, look ...' " recalls Hawkins. But when the two introduced their ideas for full employment, the labor unions, conservatives and the Carter Cabinet -- with the exception of Labor Secretary Ray Marshall -- lined up against them. Carter organized a group of economists to pressure the two legislators to drop phrases such as "the right to a job." Hawkins and Humphrey organized their own pressure groups. The turning point was enlisting the support of Catholic bishops. "Step by step we built up support that made it a moral issue, almost embarrassing when a so-called liberal administration such as the Carter administration opposes it," says Hawkins.

But he persevered. "The legislation was clearly symbolic. It stressed the importance of the government being ultimately responsible for the environment for meaningful work. When employment levels got to such a point, it was the government's responsibility to do something," says AFSCME's Bill Lucy. "His determination was inspiring to the other people who were in the fight. He never said the battle was over."

It took five years, and frankly the death of Humphrey, to get even a watered-down version of the legislation enacted. Hawkins got the pen from the president that time, and a picture for his wall.

But it isn't the glorious monument one would want. Hawkins has been angry that so much hasn't been implemented, and even issued a stinging report of alleged violations of the law.

"We live up to it in many ways," says Hawkins. "A lot of our difficulties have arisen because we haven't had vigorous growth in this country. All the anti-discrimination measures I have introduced fit in that category because the act itself calls for removal of discriminatory barriers. ... The Federal Reserve Board does not comply because the act calls for allocating credit on the basis of stimulated growth."

And he leaves some clues to his own political longevity. "The difference between certain liberals and other people is that too many liberals are sprinters -- fade out and become opportunists and then they become conservatives," he says. "I think it's the question of stamina. If you believe in something, you work a long time."