Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), the oldest member of Congress, is 88 and ailing. He deserves our affectionate attention and praise because of the difference he has made in the lives of senior citizens, poor workers, sick children and other Americans in need.
Long a friend of the elderly, Pepper has been a guardian of Medicare and Social Security. His reluctant support of compromises to keep the system solvent proved persuasive six years ago. Older men and women can work longer because his efforts to raise the minimum mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70 became law a decade ago.
Idealistic and an "ideological soul mate" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Pepper, a Harvard-educated lawyer, began his congressional career with his election to the Senate from Florida in 1936. A year later, he sponsored the bill that created the National Cancer Institute and paved the way for the other national institutes of health. Two years later, he pushed for passage of the minimum wage, although the proposal was politically unpopular in the South.
Putting principles before politics led to the end of Pepper's Senate career. Derisively nicknamed "Red" Pepper, he was smeared as a friend of Communists and black Americans during a dirty and disgraceful campaign. A former protege, George A. Smathers, beat him in 1950.
Claude Pepper returned to Congress when he was elected to the House from Miami in 1962. He is a champion to his district and to his national constituency--Americans who need help.