JERRY BROWN IS AN opportunist who cultivates image at the expense of substance. Jerry Brown is a philosopher with a common man's touch. Jerry Brown is a rebellious soul and an instrument for good. Jerry Brown is a skeptic who, as president, "would shake this country to its roots."

You pay your money and take the Jerry Brown of your choice in this montage of books about Edmund Gerald Brown Jr., the governor of California and putative candidate for president of the United States. The fact that all of them have been published at the same time - and join Ed Salzman's earlier Jerry Brown: High Priest and Low Politician to make a total of five books about the once and future governor - is probably as significant as anything the books themselves have to say. Taken together they demonstrate the presumptions shared by politicians and book publishers alike that Brown is both different and a propable opponent for Jimmy Carter in 1980. In this case, as in so many others, the wish may be father to the deed.

Speaking of fathers, it is worth saying - as Robert Pack does most pointedly - that Jerry Brown probably would be lost in some Los Angeles law firm except for the popularity and name identification of his own dad, former governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. Pack quotes various authorities on the theme that it was the family name which gave Brown his running start as community college trustee and secretary of state, the offices he used as stepping stones to the governorship.

"When he ran for the Community College Board . . . nobody knew who he was," Pat Brown told Pack. "If it were Edmund Jones or something like that, he wouldn't have led the ticket by fifty thousand votes. And when he ran for secretary of state, they knew they were voting for the son of the governor."

No observation this sensible breaks the spell of Brown , a book so unabashedly genuflective that it goes beyond the genre of authorized biography into something bordering on hero worship. It is the kind of book that might have been writted by the governor's mother, Bernice Layne Brown, except that one suspects Bernice would have been a bit more critical. Orville Schell has strung together a series of vignettes and conversations with the great man, who is depicted as a wise king who goes around the realm cuddling with rock singer Linda Ronstadt and scattering maxims among the masses.A chapter on the California mental hospitals, which Brown devastated with indifference and budget cuts, totally obscures his role in their condition. Instead, it shows the governor talking sensitively about the problem of nursing homes and allowing his picture to be taken with a retarded patient.(According to a Brown staff intern, that is "something he wouldn't have done for anybody else.")

"We're institutionalizing everybody," Brown tells a group of hospital workers to whom he is extolling the virtues of limited growth. "And I'd like to deinstitutionalize everybody. I'd like to have a community that has a more human spirit to it."

Long before Schell's book appeared, it was being highly touted to reporters by Brown aides, who said the author had been given more time with the governor than anyone else. If so, he wasted it. The conversations, which might have made this book distinctive, skim the surface and give Brown as easy forum for his familar self-deprecatory, anti-political rhetoric. Schell rarely follows up his own questions, never probes and in the end winds up as little more than a straight man for his subject. In one conversation Schell asks Brown how he takes defeat and the governor replies that he doesn't know. When Schell then asks Brown to speculate on the possibility of losing the governorship this year, Brown dodges by saying he was defeated for the presidency in 1976. "No, but that really was a victory in defeat," Schell says obligingly. Another conversation that goes nowhere finds Schell asking whether it's a good or bad time to be alive. "I think it's as good as any other," Brown replies. But Schell's book is not as good as the others.

Jerry Brown: In a Plain Brown Wrapper is pro-Brown but slightly less idolatrous than Schell. While authors Bollens and Williams try to be analytical, they are constantly defeated by their own prose. Sample, for instance, this passage about Brown's vision: "His is a vision not based upon the utopian-type Camelot stimulated by many liberals preceding him. Rather he is attempting to realign himself and those he serves with a life style that permits a closer association with the essence of being, the process of living. Brown's spirit of government is a reaffirmation of those things he perceives as basic to living organic society."

The Bollens-Williams books does contain a useful historical account of Brown's rise from seminarian to governor of the nation's most populous and diverse state. However, their biography is eclipsed by Pack's far more carefully researched effort. Pack writes ponderously and tends to give equal weight to the observations of intimates and casual acquaintances, but Jerry Brown: The philosopher-Prince could serve as a model of research for political biographers. What emerges is the portrait of a bright, though not especially studious young man who was less than happy in the home of his famous father and who rebelled by throwing his money in the street and trying to become a priest. Even at an early age, it seems, Brown was honing the skills that would make him formidable before the television cameras. St. Ignatius High School debate partner Peter Finnegan says that Brown ended every debate, no matter which side he was on, by saying, "What we need is a flexible plan for an ever-changing world." Adds Finnegan: "And I'll tell you, by God, he's hot a flexible plan."

Pack has no discernible bias for or against Brown. He seems to have talked to allies and opponents in reasonably equal measure and, for the most part, he presents what they have to say uncolored by conclusions of his own. Nonetheless, a pattern emerges of a high effective but very cautious politician who "would prefer to avoid mistakes by not acting at all." At one point, Brown is quoted as favoring "creative inaction." To which his old foe, former Democratic state assembly speaker Bob Moretti, replies, "He calls it creative inaction. I call it sitting on your ass."

Jerry Brown: The Man on the White Horse is the most critical and best written of four books, James Lorenz, a well-to-do liberal who used to direct the California Rural Legal Assistance program, was named by Brown as director of the state's Employment Development Department. He was fired seven months later, soon after the Oakland Tribune published details of a supposedly radical job program calling for business cooperatives. Lorenz charges that the program was leaked to a reporter at Brown's direction, a view widely held in Sacramento even by those who do not share Lorenz's ideological wavelenght. In any event, Lorenz's book is useful demonstration of the old political principle, "don't get mad, get even." He has built a witty, biting, sometimes sarcastic cas against his former boss, almost all of it based on the allegation that Brown is totally devoted to symbols at the expense of substance.

As Lorenz sees it Brown succeeds in the political world because he understands the Principle of the Zen Archer. "The Principle of the Zen Archer was: Hit the target by not aiming at it. Build up your authority by exercising less authority. Assert your leadership by exercising less leadership. Gain power by eschewing any interest in power."

But while Brown is diverting the public and misleading the media, bad things are happening. It turns out that Brown believes in the evil doctrine of-synedoche, which roughly means taking the part as the whole. "Thus, instead of increasing welfare benefits for $100,000 black mothers," writes Lorenz, "he would appoint a black judge to the Court of Appeals. Rather than authorizing a substantial reorganization of the prepaid health program, he would inveigh against state subsidies for bureaucrats' briefcases. In lieu of shaking up the schools in order to develop better reading programs, he would make public appearances with rock bands . . . In stead of planning major reductions in the property tax, he would save a few dollars by flying tourist class . . . Instead of favoring a tax on gasoline-gobbling automobiles, he would drive a compact car. He would do in the microcosm of his own life what it was too risky to do in the larger world."

Apart from the naive assumption that all this somehow makes Brown qualitatively different from other politicians, Lorenz's entertaining account is flawed by a bad does of sour grapes.

Though Lorenz had the reputation of being difficult to work with or for, he writes as if it were inconceivable that he could be fired for any reason other than Brown's betrayal of principle. In a two-page chapter (that's right, two pages), Lorenz also assumes into evidence the idea that his job program would reduce the crime rate. Lorenz regards this belief as too self-evident to need proof, if proof there is, and he doesn't include even a summary of the job program in his book so that readers can make their own evaluation. "It seemed so simple " Lorenz writes simply. "Jobs were the answer and everthing else was peripheral. Once jobs were erated, the government could lay off some of the psychiatrists and social workers and the welfare state could be reduced and we could all save money."

What these books have in common is a haste to get them into production that sometimes results in careless factual errors. (Lorenz, for instance, misspells the name of Brown aid Richard Maullin throughout his book; Schell does likewise with Brown press secretary Elisabeth Coleman.) What they also have in common, unfortunately, is a lack of systematic evaluation of Brown's impact on state government as measured either against his own rhetoric or the eight-year performance of Ronald Reagan. Pack and the Bollens-Williams book dip into some areas for a close look (especially Pack on Brown's farm labor program), but all of the authors find style more compelling than substance, the very charge which Lorenz levels repeatedly against Brown.

However, all these books should find a constituency. Those who think Jerry Brown is the niftiest phenomenon since the hange glider will find themselves at home with Schell or Bollens-Williams. The critics, and those who read for amusement, will prefer Lorenz. And those poor souls who are merely seeking information will learn more about Jerry Brown from Robert Pack's biography than they ever wanted to know.