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Governor Edmund G. Brown, universally known after a schoolboy nickname as "Pat" Brown, would perhaps have gone down as the greatest American state governor in the 20th century had he not had the misfortune to be defeated by Ronald Reagan.

Pat Brown was an activist. His philosophy was that of the New Deal. In his lifetime, California was growing in wealth and population at a scarcely credible rate. In his eight years as governor alone, from 1959 to 1967, the population grew by almost one-third. When, in his term, California passed New York in population, Brown called for "the biggest party this state has ever had" to celebrate.

Brown believed in using the power and wealth of California to build the most prosperous and the most enlightened civilisation the world had ever seen. He was both a dreamer and a builder. He endowed California with two assets on a titanic scale. One is the California water plan, a 500- mile complex of aqueducts, reservoirs and pumping stations without which California's rich agribusiness would collapse and Los Angeles would be a desert. It is said to be man's biggest single work of civil engineering.

Brown's other achievement was the California system of higher education, which originally offered free education in 11 universities and a whole hierarchy of subsidiary colleges to all Californians. He also pressed ahead with California's famous "freeway" system of motorways, then the envy of the world. He pushed social legislation, including state laws outlawing racial discrimination in jobs and housing. He created a consumer protection agency. And he supported legislation which established Med- Cal, a health care programme for poorer Californians.

The California of his time was a pioneer in active government. Many of the social programmes Brown and his fellow Democrats introduced there were later adopted by the federal government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

But already the downside of the Golden State's prosperity and of its visionary Democratic liberal politicians was visible. When California overtook New York, its governor had in his desk an official report calling on him to meet "the crisis problems of California growth", including "the smog, the water pollution, the crowded roads, the dirty, blighted cities, the disappearing open space".

The report might have added that the crisis was social as well as environmental. It was in Brown's term that student resentment exploded on the University of California's campuses at Berkeley and elsewhere, and, in spite of the Governor's personal commitment to racial equality, that the 1965 Watts riot first revealed the depth of racial tension in the state.

Brown handed on the torch of Democratic leadership in California to his son, also Edmund G. but known as "Jerry" Brown, who was also elected governor for two terms and, unlike his father, ran three times for the Democratic presidential nomination. His daughter Kathleen was elected the state's treasurer and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994.

By the 1970s, many Californians began to question traditional liberal policies. The tax revolt of the 1970s was a rejection of the Democrats' high taxing, high spending policies.

Pat Brown was brought up in San Francisco in a middle- class Irish-American family who were third-generation Californians - and Republicans. His grandfather drove a stagecoach in the Gold Rush. He was called "Pat" after the revolutionary orator Patrick Henry because of a rabble-rousing speech in a school debate. He got his law degree at night school, and converted to the Democratic party out of admiration for President Roosevelt in 1934.

He made his name as first San Francisco's, then the state's attorney- general. He ran for Governor of California against the three most popular politicians in the state's history: Senator Bill Knowland, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He beat the first two and was thrashed by the third, by over one million votes.

In 1958 Brown defeated Knowland, who was then the Republican leader in the US Senate and a leading contender for the 1960 Republican presidential nomination. Four years later, even more dramatically, Brown turned back Nixon's attempt to use the California governorship as a springboard for his comeback on the national scene. It was in his fury at that defeat that Nixon lost his temper and delivered the famous "You won't have Nixon to kick around" tirade.

In 1966 Brown looked certain to beat Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Brown himself behaved as if he thought so, and he made the mistake of jeering at Reagan as a "mere" actor.

But many Californians were shocked by the rioting in Berkeley and in Watts and, suddenly, a politician who stood for unchecked growth and liberal spending programmes looked strangely old-fashioned. Reagan turned out to be an inspired campaigner. When I interviewed him in 1988, Pat Brown conceded that underestimating Reagan was the worst mistake of his life.

Edmund Gerald ("Pat") Bacon, politician: born San Francisco 21 April 1905; Governor of California 1959-67; married 1930 Bernice Layne (one son, three daughters); died Beverly Hills 16 February 1996.