Every modern governor of California has believed that he would make a nifty president of the United States, and most have suffered from the illusion that they would one day reach the White House.

Earl Warren was the Avis on a ticket that lost to Harry Truman. Pat Brown also wanted a vice presidential nomination, but he was a Catholic in a year the Democrats finally nominated a Catholic for president. Ronald Reagan came within fewer than 100 votes of the Republican presidential nomination against an incumbent Republican in 1976.And Edmund Gerald Brown Jr., who beat Jimmy Carter in five head-to head primary encounters that same year, has his sights as firmly fixed on Washington horizons as his predecessors, with good reason to think that he will go farther than any of them.

This state of mind is not surprising. After all, California is a nation-state where politicians routinely observe that the gross product is exceeded by only five of the world's nations - the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, West Germany and Communist China. In the past year Brown has negotiated for natural gas with the chief executives of Canada and Mexico, traveled to Japan to promote foreign investments, and called on British leaders to discuss his views of the energy crisis and universal harmony. With the help of former astronaut Russel (Rusty) Schweickart, he also has put California on the road to its own space program.

"The future of mankind is in space," Brown says. "If we need a moral equivalent of war, it's space."

JERRY BROWN is many things to many people. All things to all people, some of his detractors would say. The Free Spirit. The New Spirit. The New Spirit, wrote Ed Salzman of the California Journal, who acts more and more like the Old Man. He is the only politician in history to have been denounced simultaneously for being a Jesuit and a devotee of Zen. Brown retreats a couple of times each month to a Zen center in San Francisco where he eats a vegetarian dinner and chats with other disciples, some of whome have become his aides and cabinet members. But does he actually practice the religion? The answer is pure Zen: "Those who know don't say, and those who say don't know."

THe answer summarizes what might be called the Paradox of Jerry Brown, a paradox that persists in all aspects of his governorship. Elected originally because of his father's name and his father's popularity, Brown has on occasion cruelly snubbed his father in public and resisted his father's suggestions for appointments. A darling of the liberals on the strength of his early support for Gene McCarthy's presidential candidacy and Cesar Chavez' efforts to organize the farm workers, Brown in office has out-Reaganed Reagan in holding the line on social service programs. A confirmed bachelor who says he resented being used as a political prop in his childhood, Brown talks eloquently about "leaving an America our grandchildren will want to inhabit."

"The key question," he says, "is who speaks for the future. What we are proposing in California is something different from the cowboy ethic, where people ride into a town and wreck it and then move on."

All these seeming contradictions confuse the people who deal with Brown and those who write about him, leaving an uncertainty not entirely unlike that still surrounding President Carter. One Democratic politician who cooperates with Brown for his own purposes but doesn't care for him believes that legislators in particular aren't sure about the governor because they can't figure out what drives him, what he's really like. "The problem is there's no there there," the politician remarked, in words Gertrude Stein is said to have used once to describe Oakland. But it might be more accurate to say that there are many "theres" and that all the conflicting images contain some measure of the complicated reality that is Jerry Brown two months before his 40th birthday.

BROWN'S CAREER has been built on "having one foot in the future," as his chief of staff, Gray Davis, expresses it. He was ahead of his party and his state on the issues of Vietnam, the farm workers and campaign spending reform. And he has tried to stay ahead of President Carter by creating an alternative presence in California on such issues as energy and water policy.

Sometimes the contrasts are striking, as with California's effort to create a non-nuclear energy environment even if that means risking energy shortages along the way. Sometimes they are implied rebukes, as when Brown aides went to Washington to suggest that California's tough anti-redlining law become the basis of a federal policy preventing lending institutions from discrimating in the inner city. Occasionally the challenge is personal, as when Brown took pointed issue with Carter's refusal to support federal financing of abortions that benefit the poor. "I think there should not be discrimination based on wealth," Brown said. "If abortion is wrong, then it is wrong for everybody."

Brown tries never to attack Carter publicly by name, but he is always willing to declare his "interest in national ideas," and he often seems to be suggesting that creative solutions are lacking at the national level. When a reporter told him he was sounding vaguely presidential, Brown replied: "I haven't made definite judgements about what I'll be doing in 1980 and 1984, but what California does is very important for the rest of the country. Most of what occurs here - the problems and the opportunities - are reflective of what happens in the country and the world."

But Brown does not allow such preoccupations to erode his popularity at home. When it became evident that his opponents were linking his "small is beautiful" advocacy with a purported California business slowdown, Brown transformed himself into an ardent seeker of foreign business investment and an advocate of growth that bordered suspiciously on boosterism. "Limits impose restraints, but also create possibilities," the governor announced.

Through all this, Brown's personal relations with Carter have been almost nonexistent. When Carter and Brown appeared at a Democratic fundraiser in Los Angeles last October, they sat at the same table for an hour and barely spoke to one another. The President, acknowledging an introduction from the governor that was both brief and diffident, said: "It really is a pleasure for me to be back in Los Angeles. I got a personal, handwritten note from your governor, Jerry Brown, but I decided to come anyway."

BROWN HAS few friends in Sacramento, where he has served as governor for three years. Polls show that he has retained the confidence of the electorate, which narrowly chose him over Republican Houston Flournoy in 1974, but he has steadily antagonized legislators and public officials of both parties.

"Jerry Brown has screwed his friends more than I ever did my enemies," says state Treasurer Jess Unruh, who as speaker of the Assembly made Pat Brown's life hell in the early 1960s. Both Unruh and the elder Brown were emotional, committed politicians who inspired warm friendships and deep animosities. The younger Brown is seen by legislators as cold, self-centered, preoccupied with his public image, uncaring of human feelings. They acknowledge that he also is bright, informed about any issue he becomes absorbed in, and an excessively hard worker.

"Have you ever seen a public official who works as hard as Jerry does?" gushed a highly placed Brown official to a reporter. "Richard Nixon," said the reporter, without thinking. The Brown official paused, but only for a moment. "They's an unfortunate example," he said. "But Jerry really does work very hard."

To those who remember the post-midnight work sessions of the early Brown administration, the governor seems to be slacking off on his compulsive work schedule. He still celebrates the value of hard work and discipline, they say, but he is less obessive about it.

Maybe so. On recent rainy night in Sacremento, Brown wrapped up work by 8:30 p.m. and drove his pale blue 1974 Plymouth to Americo's, a new Italian restaurant in a modest section of Sacramento. Surrounding him were six aides, the girl friend of one of them, and a reporter. Brown skeptically questioned one of the aides about the document he was reading, involving a land use policy that Brown is to announce. The waitress brought wine and a plate of fettuccine with clam sauce. Brown tasted it with approval, then asked why he couldn't have the clam sauce on spaghetti.

"Because it comes on the fettuccine," she replied. Brown shrugged and ate what had been served. "That's the way it is in government," he said. "It's a bureaucratic problem to get the clam sauce from the fettuccine to the spaghetti."

BROWN CRITICS would say that he has not done much better with the legislature than he did with the waitress. He's been stymied by tax relief and water problems, much as Jimmy Carter has been in Washington. But California's state government has a big, fat $4 billion surplus, created in part by the last Reagan tax increase - which was in turn part of a continuing chain reaction caused by Reagan's over-response to a deficit left him by Pat Brown. Most politicians here think that Jerry Brown and the legislature will find a way to give the surplus back to the voters in an election year and that Brown will wind up the beneficiary.

He will benefit as well from his image as a fiscally conservative yet innovative governor. This year Brown has proposed a dazzling energy program that calls for $500 million in spending over the next five years. It is the most expensive and innovative such program ever undertaken at the state level, involving participation in or sponsorship of a variety of technologies, including a coal gasification power plant, three geothermal plants, a wood burning plant, a methanol plant and a wind-generation experiment.

Underlying this state commitment to alternative technologies is Brown's concern over the reliance on nuclear energy in President Carter's energy program."We're looking down the barrel of headlong rush to nuclear power," Brown said in an interview last August. "I think that raises very serious problems."

Recently, the State Energy Commission, which is headed by longtime ally Richard Maullin, turned down a proposal by the San Diego Gas and Electric Co. to build a nuclear plant in the desert 200 miles east of San Diego. The decision may have ended the nuclear age in California. Critics charge that Brown is causing an energy crisis that will occur when he is no longer governor. Brown dismisses this accusation with a wave of his hand. "We're more likely to wind up with an energy surplus," he says.

Next week Brown will announce his "urban strategy for California." Directed at California's urban housing shortage, it will provide $300 million for building rental units and grant a five-year tax forgiveness for fixing up old businesses and factories. The plan also will meet a principal objective of builders by dispensing with state environment impact statements in downtown areas. Its 50 separate proposals will contain one typical Brown innovation - an urban forestry program that calls for the planting of fruit and shade trees on city streets. This has two purposes: city beautification and employment for inner-city youth.

Brown's social services record is something else again. When he came into office, Democratic legislators welcomed him as an alternative to the Reagan years of "squeeze, cut and trim." They soon were disabused of their fantasies. Under the battle cry of "lowered expectations," Brown cut back on education, welfare and hospital programs.

At the height of the cutbacks, a 39-year-old quadraplegic named Robert Oden, who had lost his state grant, complained: "Brown's people are very indifferent, very cold and callous. They look at the figures and wait for the pins to light up and they cut. It looks good for them to be cutting money. They don't see the human beings who are suffering."

Gino Lera, a Brown aide, said at the time that under the "era of limits" the disabled and elderly would "have to sacrifice something too."

Brown's most dubious performance involved the state mental hospitals. Their operating fund declined in the Reagan years, when treatment emphasis shifted to community centers. The hospitals were in deep trouble when Brown took office, and Democrats were confident the governor would help. The legislature quickly passed a bill sponsored by State Sen. Alfred E. Alquist, a San Jose Democrat, to improve staffing standards. Brown vetoed the bill in 1975, as Reagan had befor him. He vetoed the bill the next year, too, and he took $400 million out of a $10 million appropriation for a trouble-ridden mental hospital in Los Angeles.

When psychiatrists at the hospital started to resign enmasse, Brown said he had "no idea" of what Lanterman was talking about. But when the resignations became a big story on Los Angeles television, Brown stepped in quickly, held his own hearings and boosted the mental hospital's budget, taking credit for solving a problem that he had helped cause. Brown singled out Lanterman for praise in this year's "state of the state" message and proclaimed 1978 "The Year of Mental Health."

The effort was a public relations triumph, but it did not please those who knew most about the issue. "I told the governor that 3 1/2 years of almost crminal neglect couldn't be put out by a twelfth-hour attempt to spray the atmosphere with greenbacks," Lanterman said.

The bipartisan Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog group that had been critical of the state hospital operation under Reagan, said that the Brown administration had cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds by not bringing state hospitals up to federal standards. "A shameful chaos . . . permeates the state health delivery system," said the commission report.

Least satisfied of all was Sen. Alquist, who is talking about refusing to back Brown for re-election. "He causes all this suffering and then goes down and poses with a little retarded girl in a hospital and comes off on television as the savior of the hospitals," Alquist said. "It's revolting."

BROWN IS SENSITIVE to the charge that he has dealt in symbolism, not substance, during his administration. His sensitivity was heightened by a recent article in Esquire magazine by James D. Lorenz, who was state director of employment development in the first 18 months of the Brown administration. Brown aides say Lorenz was more interested in embellishing his liberal credentials than in developing a jobs plan that anyone would accept. Lorenz proposals for business collectives and cooperatives were couched in such fiery terms that businessmen denounced it as "socialist," and Brown asked for Lorenz' resignation. When it wasn't forthcoming, he fired him.

In his Esquire article, an excerpt from a future book, Lorenz portrays his former boss as a word manipulator who is concerned only with making a good impression on the media. One of his examples is of law-and-order ad in Brown's 1974 campaign where Brown was telling a group of elderly people how his grandmother had walked in the park each day until she had become afraid of being mugged. Lorenz quotes Brown as saying, "Buzz word, buzz word, buzz word, buzz word, buzz word, buzz word. That ad has six buzz words in it. I sound tough, I haven't proposed anything the liberals can criticize me for. In fact, I haven't committed myself to do anything at all."

Without prodding, Brown proceeds to attack Lorenz' premise, saying that symbolism is an essential ingredient of political leadership. This is considered a truism in the Brown camp. Bill Press, an imaginative planner who heads Brown's research office, believes that symbolism and substance have been indistinguishable for Brown on conservation and energy issues. "Can you imagine Jerry living in a 16-room mansion and being ferried around in a limousine?" asks Press. "The fact that he lives modestly and drives an old car has been a big part of dramatizing the new era we're trying to create." In Brown's view, the symbols are valid ones, and Lorenz is a disgruntled ex-aide trying to get even.

THE ARGUMENTS about symbolism and substance are most vivid in the matter of appointments. Beyond doubt, Brown has appointed more women and minorities than any governor in the history of California. Of his first 2,151 appointments through mid-January, Brown name 674 women, 202 Mexico-Americans, 171 blacks, 68 Asians and 31 American Indians.

Critics say that Brown is concerned solely with statistics, not quality. Exhibit A for the critics' side is embattled Mario Obledo, the state secretary of health and welfare, a well-intentioned man who even Brown aides privately admit has been less than impressive. Obledo's agency has been shaken by scandals, the latest involving the penetration of a prison-based gang known as the Mexican Mafia into East Los Angeles drug rehabilitation programs.

Brown, after some wavering in the face of political pressure from Mexican-American groups, cast his lot with Obledo. After a period of silence he appeared unannounced at a rally of Mexican-Americans and proclaimed Obledo "a good man, a great man."

Of the appointments in general it is certainly true, as biographer Robert Pack contends, that Brown is "slowly transferring power from the whit, male elit groups where it has traditionally rested to the broader citizenry of California." At a town hall meeting in Sacramento last December, Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis, told a black man who had complained about racism in prisons: "I agree with you that the foremost problem before this country is still racism. Since Gov. Brown has been governor, when a black man walks into a courtroom, there's a much better chance the [judge's] face staring back at him will be black."

JERRY BROWN'S defenders are eager to talk about his appointments. Ask what kind of administrator he is and they prefer to change the subject. "Jerry is a lousy adminstrator," admits one otherwise staunch Brown defender, affirming what Pat Brown had intimated to a Sacramento Bee reporter soon after his son took office.

The chief complaints are not entirely different from those being leveled at President Carter nowadays - that Brown refuses to delegate authority and that he involves himself in matters of such minor detail that major items of business are delayed. Some also say that Brown is so concerned with being the whole show that he is reluctant to surround himself with first-class aides. "The governor does not bring people aboard who have their own constituencies," says Democratic Assemblyman Vic Fazio. "He wants people to have the sole constituency of Jerry Brown."

J. Anthony Kline, the governor's legal counsel and perhaps the most widely respected of his aides, says that Brown has deliberately set out to administer his office in a different way. "He used to say that his father and Reagan - and even himself - when he was secretary of state - became captives of their office," Kline recalls. "You sit around a table with six decisions to make and four recommendations on each one of them. You're too dependent on aides, and he didn't want to become that way."

Brown has succeeded in this goal, perhaps beyond anybody's wildest expectations. He gnaws at decisions like a dog on a bone, tossing ideas back and forth with aides, specialists and passersby. Some of the Reagan cabinet secretaries were important people in their own right, and Reagan delegated considerable authority to them to run their departments. Brown views the secretaries, he says, as "liaisons" who bring ideas and recommendations back to him. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who may have tackled too many initiatives at once, Brown finds it difficult to do more than one thing at a time. He surrounds an issue, trying to learn all there is about it and questioning past solutions. But big decisions sometimes go unmade while Brown worries about issues that could properly be decided at a lower level.

Near the end of the last legislative session, for instance, a merger was concluded in which the conglomerate of Pepsico acquired Pizza Hut. Under an old California law, beverage wholesalers cannot hold retail licenses, and a bill was needed to allow Pizza Hut to sell beer and wine, a condition of the acquisition. In the past, such exemptions have been routinely approved by legislatures and signed by governors. But Brown, at a time when amajor tax and water legislation was going down the drain, became fascinated with the issue. He visited a Pizza Hut in Oakland and sampled the pizza. Then he negotiated with the company to provide a stipulated percentage of jobs for minorities. Finally, Brown turned to nutritional considerations, wanting to know if "junk food" would be seved. "Governor," replied the company representative, "we are in the business of serving what some people refer to as junk food."

BROWN'S SELF-INDULGENCE on such issues worries even some of his strongest supporters, who think his refusal to delegate is a mark against him in the pursuit of the presidency. But Brown believes his style is best suited to him, and he also disagrees with critics who find him indecisive. "I don't believe in making decisions before decisions have to be made," Brown says. "Leadership is identifying priorities. Often I delay because something isn't important or doesn't seem right."

This answer suggests that Brown has a strong faith in his political instinct about when something is right for decision. Until that "right" moment arrives, he is content to let civil servants run things. Brown, no less than Reagan before him has made a career of running against the bureaucracy. But, perhaps because he grew up in a political enviroment, Brown understands that the bureaucracy will function pending any new decision. "The power of the central bureaucracy is pervasive, it is technocratic and elitist," Brown says. "If you don't want to rattle the bureaucrat's cage about something, let him run his program. He'll do all right."

WORKING FOR Jerry Brown is no picnic. Neither is being his friend. "He's absolutely, totally, completely cold," says a woman who has known him for years. "Interesting, fascinating even, but cold." Another woman, who raised money for him, says that her friends don't believe her when she tells them Brown once thanked her for efforts. "It's the only time," she adds.

Members of Brown's family agree that Jerry was an indulged only son, brought up by three sisters. Historian John. J. Fitzpatrick, co-editor of Psychohistory Review, believes that Brown grew up considering himself "a special child of fortune," with a far greater ability to receive than to give.

Whatever the reasons, people who have worked in close proximity to Brown say he is a difficult boss. "He ranges from being insensitive to being abusive," says a former aide. One key aide keeps a punching bag in the closet to vent his frustrations. The difficulty is compounded by the long hours, Brown's habitual lateness ("Brown time," his aides call it) and a continual crisis atmosphere.

Nevertheless, Brown inspires strong, defensive loyalty from many of those who work for him, both in high and low positions. One administration official who admires Brown but doesn't ever want to work in his immediate entourage says that the aides are united by a common ability to work hard and a common fascination with power. "There's a masochistic streak to anyone who allows themselves to be used as hard as they are, but they seem to thrive on it," he adds.

A Democratic officeholder who is a Brown critic believes Brown gets loyalty but doesn't give it. "You need loyalty downward as well as up," he says. "Otherwise, you're not going to get the 100 per cent effort that makes you president."

BROWN IS reserved, almost shy. He reminds people more of his mother, Bernice, than of his father. When he was running for governor and when he was first in office, any mention of Pat Brown noticeably irritated the son, who wanted to be considered governor in his own right. But Jerry Brown is more relaxed about his father these days and more willing to give him credit. A recent Paul Conrad cartoon in the Los Angeles Times showed the two Browns together with Jerry saying: "Amazing, dad, how much smarter you've gotten in the past three years?"

Father-son analyses ar big these days in California. In a recent article, psychohistorian Fitzpatrick portrays Brown's domination of back-slapping, two-term Gov. Pat Brown. "At midlife, the governor is still fighting his dependence on his father - a struggle that sons usually resolve in adolescence," Fitzpatrick asserts. Brown, who seems less disturbed by this article than by Lorenz' piece, concedes that there is some truth to this. But he expresses disdain for psychohistory. Speaking of the period when he entered a Jesuit seminary for 3 1/2 years, Brown says: "If your father was around when you went in, you were rebelling against him. If he's away, you're seeking a father substitute. They've got you either way."

LARGELY BECAUSE of his performance in the 1976 presidential primaries, Brown is considered a media genius. He is a natural politician, somewhat like a virtuoso who grew up in a house where politics is played and who learned it instinctively before he could read the music.

But Brown worked hard to become a media star. Political columnist Joe Scott remembers him in 1970, hand -carrying his own press releases so that he learned where they went and what happened to them.

The year before, when Brown was winning a seat on the community college board, he met newsman Tom Quinn, who also trying to enter politics. Quinn lost his bid for a school board seat, but he became friends with Brown and talked to him about TV and radio. Brown's cool, diffident manner was suited to television, and he worked hard to make it better. Today, if Brown is told he has 30 seconds, he fills the allocated time with a crisp well-formulated sentence that would be the envy of Ronald Reagan. It is one of the reasons that Brown is heavily favored for re-election over the survivor of a nondescript Republican field whose early leaders are former Los Angeles police chief Ed Davis and attorney general Evelle Younger.

When Brown switches his stand on a major issue, it is the result of careful planning. At a time of great furor against school busing in Los Angeles, Brown picked a widely viewed television station to inform his viewers that "white flight" to escape busing must be recognized as "a reality." Though Brown has never backed the anti-integration forces, he carefully left the impression that he didn't think busing was much of an answer.

Timing is the key to all of Brown's political seitches. Perhaps political timing also explains some of the seeming paradoxes of the Brown budgets. Every budget in California, as in Washington, is a record one. The pattern of growth can best be traced through the size of the state workforce, which grew annually by 5 percent during Pat Brown's administration and by 1.5 percent during the Reagan years. The growth rate under Jerry Brown has been 2.3 per cent, but it was under 1 per cent the first two years when he was trying to demonstrate his frugality in Reagan's shadow. "The present budget reflects mor of what people might have expected from me in the first budget," says Brown. "It takes time."

BROWN'S FAST FOOTWORK has helped keep him far ahead in the early polls as he prepares to begin his formal campaign, which will be mangaed by staff chief Davis. One of Brown's apparent strengths is that polls show he consistently draws between one-sixth and one-fifth of the Republican vote. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by mor than 3 to 2, it is almost impossible for GOP candidates to win unless they have their own party solidly behind them.

The pre-campaign period also has demonstrated careful planning. Aware that some of his 1976 presidential creditors were grumbling about an unpaid $117,000 debt. Brown scheduled a $1,000-a-couple buffet in Beverly Hills at the home of investment banker Jack Myers and his wife Lynne, the daughtet of show business magnate and Democratic bankroller Lew Wasserman. One of the potential contibutors to this event said that he expects to be making another donation to the Brown presidential campaign in 1980.

In fact, those who see higher office for Jerry Brown are brimming over with enthusiasm despite recent published criticisms that Brown had bungled his 1976 race by misjuding his chances to qualify for the Ohio ballot. Some see this as a classic sign of Brown's indecisiveness, reflecting an inability to mount a serious, long-range campaign. Tom Quinn thinks this view is nonsense. "The presidential thing was really a last-minute affair in 1976," he says. "I think it's safe to say that if Jerry runs in 1900 he won't make the same mistakes twice.