MY CALIFORNIA editor asked me some months ago to write about Phillip Burton, the powerful Democratic congressman from San Francisco. I agreed to do it, but as the weeks passed, I always found other stories to do instead.

I didn't really want to write about Burton. I had known him since childhood and I think I was afraid that if I concentrated in my article on his many faults, he would find me ungenerous. On the other hand, if I stressed his many good works, my editors would think I was getting soft.

Last Sunday, Phil forced the issue by dying. I had to help write his obituary.

But Phil Burton hated sugar-coating, anyway. "Lay it all on the table, baby," he used to say. Besides that, Burton respected honest journalism. "Be happy in your work," was his favorite expression. And Phil was more than happy in his work.

Politics was his profession, his hobby, his passion. It was no accident that he authored one of the most spectacular gerrymanders in history before the 1982 elections, and gave California six more Democratic House seats. He knew the boundaries and tendencies in every one of the state's 45 congressional districts better than the members who held the seats. Former California congressman Jerome Waldie once quipped, "Phil's idea of pillow talk is to go over the latest voter registration figures from Ventura Country."

Phil never acknowledged defeat, and never went home with his tail between his legs. If he'd had that temperament, he'd never have gotten off the ground in politics. In 1954, Phil, then a left-winger in his 20s, ran in his first election for state assembly against an old labor Democrat named William Berry. Berry died in office. But the San Francisco papers, which were less than enamoured of Phil, didn't make a big deal out of it. Thus, on election day, Berry was still on the ballot and he won.

After losing to a dead man, most people would figure they weren't cut out for politics. That never entered Burton's head. Two years later, he moved into an assembly district in San Francisco occupied by a candidate so tough he was known as "The unbeatable Tommy Maloney." But Burton beat the Republican Maloney, partly because 1956 was the first year that California ballots listed party affilation.

And it was after the disheartening loss to Jim Wright of Texas for majority leader in 1976 that Burton made the issue of increasing parks and wilderness his own. The bills he shepherded through the house doubled the size of wilderness areas in America, and when he died Burton was in the process of trying to push through legislation to double them again. So committed was he that on Tuesday, Rep. David R. Obey, (D- Wis.) suggested "that if Phil Burton had known he was going to die, he would have had a whole lot more in that bill."

Because so many of the Democrats in the huge California delegation owed their Washington existence to Burton and his reapportionment schemes, he was like a father to many of them, especially the younger members. Often, Burton would summon them to his office in the evenings, where he characteristically would have his shoes off and be "ranting and raving about the tragedies of the day," in the words of Rep. Robert Matsui.

Rep. Fortney (Pete) H. Stark, an Oakland Democrat, recalled once during an argument with Burton -- such encounters tended to get heated -- "it ended up . . . by my screaming at Phil that his only problem was that he did not know how to tell people he loved them. From then on . . . whenever I would see Phil and the more crowded the room and the more crowded the street, the louder he would shout . . . "Fortney, I love you."

But many of those in the Congress never saw this side of Burton. They were treated only to the heavy- handed intimidator, who delighted in being crude and who happily used bullying to get his way.

Early in this session, Rep. Jack Bryant, a freshman Democrat from Texas, was vying with Rep. Howard Berman for the freshman seat on the House Steering and Policy Committee. Berman, from Los Angeles, was Burton's handpicked choice. Besides, Bryant was backed by Wright, who had in 1976 defeated Burton by one vote for House majority leader.

According to accounts of those who were there, after Burton had had more than a couple of drinks, he ran into Bryant a bar one night. He reportedly poked his finger in the freshman's chest and threatened, "If you don't get out of the race, you'll be as worthless as a used condom."

When Bryant didn't quit, Burton cashed a lot of IOUs to back up his bluster: Berman was elected.

Such displays were not rare, and Burton's personality cost him friends. It also cost him the job of majority leader.

But there are a couple of points to remember when discussion Burton's arrogance and abrasiveness. For one thing, he could be self-effacing about it. A few months ago, he was telling me at length about some painful malady that he had thought was hemorrhoids, but turned out to be something else. In describing the pain he was suffering and how irritable it was making him, Burton observed, "And I'm not exactly a sweetheart under the best of circumstances."

Another point to remember is that Burton never wanted power for its own sake, or so he could line his pockets, or because of some inner insecurity. Phil had a liberal political agenda that he believed in. And those who benefited from his power plays, were, the words of Rep. Les AuCoin of Oregon, "those who are powerless, those who are not able to lobby for themselves, those who are poor, those who are dispossessed, those who need a better break."

And Burton wanted results, not talk. "I'm not interested in legislative masturbation," he once said. He could get results.

In 1971 Burton suddenly and stunningly led a group of his liberal allies to defeat a reform measure that would cub cottom subsidies to wealthy growers.

It turned out that Burton had seen that he had the power to save the precious cotton subsidy for the Dixie conservatives. In return, he wanted their support for a new bill he had coming out in a few weeks that would compensate mine workers who were victims of black lung disease. Years later, Burton would boast that in exchange for a few million dollars in subsidies to big cotton growers, he had secured billions of dollars to help stricken miners.

In 1972, Burton again rallied liberals to save the cotton subsidy. Again, he wouldn't reveal why. Weeks later, Leo Rannert of The Sacramento Bee tracked down Phil's wife Sala at the Democratic Convention and asked what had Phil obtained in return this time. "Food stamps for strikers," she said succinctly. And it was true. The Dixie conservatives had voted against legislation that would have made strikers ineligible for food stamps.

The Dixie conservatives kept their word because Phil always kept his, usually with some expression such as, "you can bet your bippy on that" or, if he was assuring a fellow member that his interests were being taken care of, Burton would invariably say, "You're in your mother's arms."

Sometimes his colleagues didn't like the way Burton was mothering them. Rep. Mervyn Dymally, a Los Angeles Democrat, recalled when he was in the assembly and Burton was chairing a committee he was on. "Phil would say, 'This bill is good for Mervyn. Dymally votes aye.' And so enraged was I that I stopped going to the committee meetings."

When Dymally told Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh why he had stopped attending, Unruh replied, "I think you better go back, because he is continuing to vote for you."

Burton's intense desire to take care of people especially included his family. To assure his brother John of having a safe congressional district, Phil gave up the best part of his San Francisco district and drew a Bay Area district so weirdly shaped that the only way to travel to all parts of it without going in another district was by boat.

"That district weaves in and out like a snake," Burton boasted.

The week before his death, Phil met his brother Bob for lunch in San Francisco because he was concerned about his 84-year-old aunt. It seems she was marrying a 70-year-old neighbor and Phil wanted to make sure she wasn't making a mistake.

Gradually, those around Phil came to depend on this support he gave them. In his eulogy Tuesday, Rep. Starke told his colleagues, "Phil, I am a little peeved. Phil owed me a phone call. He was to explain some things that I was to get done in SSI, particularly as it dealt with California. . . . I am peeved becaused I was not told what to do next."

"Now, I am happy in my work, Phil, and I know I am in my mother's arms. I hope that . . . the memory of you will tell me what to do next."