Richard Nixon used to tell us that the courageous act he was about to perform was going to cost him popularity but he would suffer it for the country. Carter and his administration are doing the same with oil and energy.

If he does lose popularity, it won't be because we fail to appreciate his zeal for his nation, but because his performance has been as vacuously theatrical as it has been poorly thought out. To keep repeating the energy situation is "the moral equivalent of war" as he sends his Archangel of Energy, James Schlesinger, talking about Pearl Harbor is to plant the suspicion that President Carter is covering a weak set of facts with strong overdramatization.

American statesmen fall back on creating partiotic crises for a number of reasons. They see their own opportunity for greatness only in terms of the turbulence and uproar of crisis. Heroic Churchill against a backdrop of London in flames.

Crisis provides men like Carter and Schlesinger, who feel the power and authority of the central government has weakened in the past decade, the chance to strengthen it. "The first principle is that we can have an effective and comprehensive energy policy only if the Government (capital G is in the text) takes responsibility for it," quotes our worried leader. Four years ago we saw the capital-G take effective responsibility for gasoline allocations with the result that there was not gas in some states and price wars in others. A less-promising approach to our very real energy problems can scarcely be conceived than giving more authority to a set of institutions which, after 200 years of existence, has yet to learn how to deliver the mail.

A crisis is defined by our public officials as a time of sacrifice, a time to "test the character of the American people," to quote Carter again. You and I may shudder when we hear Carter and Schlesinger welcome the harsh deprivations associated with war and other periods when the people are miserable and statesmen wax great; the theologians of Government, however, see the national destiny in adversity.

We are a fat, self-indulgent people needing to be disciplined and brought down to fighting weight.

And it is so without purpose. The proven oil resources of the world are greater today than they were a decade ago, so that the crisis, if there ever is one, is at least 10, but probably 25 years down the road. We have the time we need to shift over from an energy-intensive society to an energy-frugal one without sacrifices to Jimmy Carter's metaphysical needs.

The difficulty is that our own leaders underestimate us. They don't believe that we're capable of adopting and sticking to a plan or a program which will not bear fruit for perhaps 20 years. Another reason for a crisis. We have to be scared into action because we are such thoughtless, improvident energy-pigs that nothing less than a call to the colors will induce us to act rationally.

Our national cultural trait is just the opposite. We're great planners for the future. A nation of squirrels who sock our nuts away for the winter. Look at the billions upon billions in our savings and loan associations; billions upon hundreds of billions tied up in insurance; look at our lust for home ownership. We, a people who live with the obsessing and depressing fear of an impecunious old age, do not have to do convinced to act now to provide for the future.

We do have to be convinced, however, that the situation is as the President defines it. Cranking the CIA up to release a too-timely fright report on world oil reserves the day before President Carter starts his patriotic hullabaloo isn't the way to convince us. The CIA is an agency with a reputation for inaccuracy, an agency that couldn't tell the difference between dead water buffalo and dead Vietcong back in the old-body count days. Now it jumps forward to yes-man the new Commander-in-Chief with an incompetent oil analysis.

The moral equivalent of war? The exact equivalent of hyperbole.