San Francisco — Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a perennial quester for the presidency who says he has quieted this yearning, at least for 1984, told the Monitor that he sees a possibility that Ronald Reagan ''will go down in history as a very important president.''
Although basically critical of Reagan, Democrat Brown sees in the President the flexibility that may enable him to negotiate a nuclear arms limitation pact with the Soviets.
''Because of his conservative credentials,'' says Mr. Brown, ''because of his positioning in the American political process, (Reagan) is uniquely empowered to negotiate and obtain ratification for a workable nuclear arms treaty.''
Brown, interviewed while traveling by plane between Los Angeles and San Francisco, provided the following comments about Mr. Reagan, whom he has watched closely for years here in California, and about his own views on governmental affairs:
What is your assessment of the President at year's end? Any surprises?
The President is personally popular, just as he was in California. But he is surrounded by a group of advisers that are taking him on a very rocky road. The attacks on the environment; the tight money policies; the cutbacks in research and education and manpower training; the forays against parts of the social security program; all of that is full of serious risks for the President.
But have there been any surprises in his performance, from your point of view - based on what he had done as governor of California?
I've been surprised he has taken such a hard line against the environment. As a governor he had a much better record than Mr. Watt is providing for him now.
Any surprise in the way he has been able to win some big victories over opposition in Congress?
He likes to go over the head of Congress - as he did the California Legislature. And he will often win some tactical victories. But having won his economic recovery act, it now remains to be seen whether it will in fact work - and, perhaps even more fundamentally, whether the justice of the program will commend itself to people.
How fair is the Reagan economic approach? My own sense is that there are tens of millions of people who see his economic doctrine tilted to the privileged and lacking sensitivity to the broad base of the American people.
Is he showing you any more in the way of leadership than you saw in California?
No, his track record as president is similar to his first year as governor.
Which is what?
High levels of popularity. A certain amount of confrontation. And generally good reception on the part of voters.
Do you think Mr. Reagan is a man of character?
The President is a man who does what he believes. He has a strong belief system that points him in the direction of a laissez-faire philosophy. You know, big business knows best. And yet as governor he showed some flexibility when he had to. So to the extent that Democrats press him successfully, he will surprise you in his flexibility.
He's rather a formidable politician, don't you think?
A good politician. But my own view is that the President will have difficulty in succeeding in his economic objectives over the next couple of years - and that he therefore will be inclined to look toward foreign policy opportunities. And I think that despite all the rising controversy and confrontation, the nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets still offers the President his best opportunity.
And if he gives himself to negotiating a strong, verifiable treaty with the Soviets, he will go down in history as a very important president.
Any indication, as you see it, that he may be moving in that direction?
He's made a statement on nuclear weapons in Europe. And it remains to be seen whether he will follow that up now with a very aggressive effort to obtain a treaty. Also, of course, there is a question whether the Russians will want one.
My own feeling is that despite all the problems in the Middle East and throughout the rest of the world, the nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over civilization, and Ronald Reagan may be the last man that can slow down a nuclear arms race.
And the reason I say that is because of his conservative credentials, because of his positioning in the American political process, he is uniquely empowered to negotiate and obtain ratification for a workable nuclear arms treaty.He's really flexible enough?
I believe he is flexible enough. In California he showed more flexibility than his rhetoric would suggest.
You mean that his rhetoric doesn't always reflect his own views:
No, I believe he believes the things he says in his speeches. But when he is faced with no option, he'll compromise.
Other views on the President?
Almost paradoxically Reagan is increasing the power of government - but he is doing so unconsciously. The military is getting stronger. The CIA is getting stronger. The national debt is growing. The role of the Federal Reserve Board is becoming stronger. And by his truly managed deregulation strategy, he's going to contribute to the chaos of the marketplace such that people will demand an even greater government involvement. So paradoxically the legacy of Reagan will be an increase of government.
What should be done about Poland?Obviously we ought to do all that we can to keep the Soviets out of Poland. I would hope that the Pope would play an active role.
The road ahead (in foreign affairs) is going to become ever more difficult. And, therefore, we have to be better prepared. And that better preparation means not only better conventional military capacity but better self-reliance in our economy, and in our energy sufficiency. And that means a closer relationship with Mexico and Canada.
Would you expand on your views on foreign affairs?
We have to put greater attention on the Western Hemisphere and make sure our home base is as secure as possible. And to the extent that we jeopardize our economic stability to make a military buildup, we are making a mistake. Military strength emerges out of economic strength.
I don't believe that President Reagan is aware of the need for investments in education, research, technological innovation, and manpower training. The President is aware of private investment and capital formation.
But there is public investment and public capital formation. And that requires a great presidential commitment. We are under severe competitive attack. And unless we make a much greater effort our economy is going to stagger along for many years to come.
You seem to have more ups and downs that most public figures. How do you account for this?
I'm prepared to take bold action. When I thought Diablo Canyon wasn't safe enough, I fought it. When I didn't like what James Watt was doing, I brought him to court and successfully blocked his offshore drilling attempts. When I saw that the farm workers needed secret ballot elections, I worked for them. When I saw a lack of Hispanics and blacks and women in jobs, I made a decided effort to bring them into government. That ruffles feathers, rattles cages. I'm still doing that.
There are some who say you have ridden the medfly issue to political disaster. What do you say to that?
I wouldn't go that far. That fact of the matter is that cutbacks in government and lack of investment in science and research and monitoring contributed to the medfly problem. And in no small measure it was because of cutbacks in our border stations, our university research, and our monitoring capacity that we get into this Medfly business.
As a US senator what do you think you could accomplish?
I would be an aggressive advocate for the interests of California. And I would contribute to the building of a new national strategy without which I don't think we can successfully negotiate our way through the '80s.
You now are leaning in the direction of running for the Senate next year?