The Enduring Weirdness of 'He Kept Us Safe'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the more jarring moments in Wednesday night’s debate came during a discussion of terrorism and the legacy of Jeb Bush’s brother, George W. “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe,” Jeb said.

As many people pointed out at the time, that isn’t quite true: The biggest terror attack on American soil happened on his watch, on September 11, 2001. But none of the candidates on stage, nor the moderators, pointed this out, and today Jeb reiterated the point in a tweet. But this one is even weirder: The image he posted features the former president atop the rubble at Ground Zero.

That was a powerful moment and one of George W.’s most celebrated, but it’s awfully dissonant to put a picture of it right next to the claim that “he kept us safe,” which the picture debunks.

While some of us were chatting about this today, my colleague Russell made a smart point that when this claim debuted it was often carefully caveated: “He kept us safe after 9/11.” That important qualifier has since dropped off, leaving us with this questionable formulation.

This came up in the debate in the context of whether Obama has made the U.S. less safe. Of course, there’s been no comparable attack on American soil under Obama—thank God. Maybe this is not the best, or only, standard: Major terrorists attacks are exceedingly rare and many other factors may matter more than what any president does. But widening the scope beyond major attacks may not make Bush’s legacy look any better. As James Fallows argued in 2004, Bush’s decision to take his eye off the ball and focus on Iraq may have made the U.S. more vulnerable in important ways.