Jimmy Carter’s favorite word when he was president was “sacrifice.” Using UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project database, I calculate that he uttered it 479 times in speeches and statements during his four-year term. According to the same database, John F. Kennedy, who famously advised Americans to “Ask what you can do for your country,” used it only 60 times in his own public pronouncements.
Surely the willingness to sacrifice is an admirable value, for individuals as much as for nations. But Carter made it a fetish. Armed with Benjamin Franklin–like adages (“Today’s sacrifice will bring tomorrow’s security”), he compulsively told Americans, who were facing 10 percent inflation and 20 percent interest rates, that doing without was something to cherish. At swearing-in ceremonies for agency appointees, he would boast that the gent standing beside him was choosing to serve the public “at some considerable sacrifice to himself, financially.” At state dinners, he would praise the various host nations’ ennobled citizenry for their stoic endurance of famines, upheavals, or war. At a time when the unemployment rate for African Americans was 14.6 percent, he perversely importuned economic sacrifice in speeches before Black organizations. “We’ve never acquired an additional element of fairness or equity or freedom or justice without sacrifice,” he told the National Urban League in one of the opening speeches of his 1980 campaign. Throughout his presidency, he frequently launched into passionate fits of nostalgia for World War II, when “the challenge of fighting Nazism drew us together.” In one of his most famous speeches, given in April 1977, he deployed the word “sacrifice” 10 times to enlist Americans against an “energy crisis” that he called the “moral equivalent of war”; in an even more famous one, 14 days into his term, he implored Americans to set their thermostats to 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night as he sat in a sweater before a roaring White House fire. (First lady Rosalynn Carter complained that the typists in her East Wing office had to warm their hands with gloves.)
The striking thing was that, when he gave that last speech, the United States was not really in an energy crisis. The country had been, for several months following the 1973 Arab oil boycott, and would be again. But in the interim, the price of gas at the pump had held steady. It seemed as if Carter were seeking excuses to demand that Americans make do with less. And when oil supplies finally did contract following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he sounded almost giddy: “I don’t look on conservation or saving energy as a burden or an unpleasant sacrifice. It can be an inspirational thing. It can be an enjoyable thing. It can bring families together. It can bring communities together. It can make us proud of ourselves.”