07/13/2007 10:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Storytelling

"I grew up in the pre-television age, in a family of uneducated but smart, hard-working, caring storytellers. They taught me that everyone has a story. And that made politics intensely personal to me. It was about giving people better stories."

-President Bill Clinton

"You've heard, I'm sure, that I like to tell an anecdote or two."

-President Ronald Reagan

I've learned a lot from Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in my nearly six years as Executive Director of the ACLU.

They were, of course, vastly different leaders, and neither was a great civil libertarian. But they did share at least one common trait. They both knew how to tell a good story.

The most successful politicians know how to capture the imagination of the American public. They are master storytellers, able to deliver narratives that resonate with a broad cross-section of this diverse nation.

Politicians tell stories for a reason. Whether it's a story of ambivalent, re-requited love; of a popular, but odd-ball basketball player; of a vet who invokes the past but blinks at the present; or of a tough parent who plays nurturer in a pinch -- we need to do more than just listen. We need to ask what are the values that underlie them. We need to scrub their stories and sort out why they're telling them.

During a recent visit with my family, I got to thinking about my late grandmother who I miss very much. She never attended college, but she worked hard for many years on the Faberge factory line. My move from the Bronx to Princeton for college carried me into a very different world, but when I would come home from school, she would say, "Antonio... sientate. Haz me un cuento" -- "sit down, tell me a story." And it was by telling stories that we were able to understand and appreciate each others' lives.

Today, I have a pen-pal named Mr. Hudson. We've never met, but he writes often, sending messages like: "if you want to keep on defending terrorists, get the hell out of America and go to Iran," and "The whole civil liberty union is full of anti-god communists."

Mr. Hudson's missives are testament to the fact that many Americans fell prey to the fear-mongering of some government officials. Since 9/11, the ACLU has been trying to tell a very different story of our America.

Just as I had to talk about university life in ways that spoke to my grandmother, the ACLU must deliver our message -- that we can be both safe and free, and that everyone in America has the right to live with dignity -- in a way that a larger audience will understand.

My belief that we need to tell the stories of Americans fighting for justice even as we fight against terror moved me to write a book of American stories, In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror, with journalist Dina Temple-Raston.

In Defense of Our America is not a legal or historical analysis for policy wonks. It is a work of nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. And its characters are real Americans on the front lines of the battle for civil liberties.

We tell the story of Bert Spahr, a public school teacher in Dover, Pennsylvania who refused to allow religion to be forced into her science classroom;

Of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," who was delayed access to a lawyer, tortured and humiliated by our government -- a harbinger of post-9/11 human rights violations to come;

Of Cecelia Fire Thunder, the Sioux president who was impeached for trying to ensure that women on her South Dakota reservation would have access to safe, legal abortions;

Of Matt Limon, a gay teenager in Kansas who was sentenced to 17 years in prison after a consensual sexual experience with a younger teenage boy, where a straight teenage boy with a girl the same age would have received a sentence no longer than 15 months;

Of Kot Hordynski, a University of California student labeled a "credible threat" by the Pentagon after protesting military recruitment on his campus;

And of Josh Dratel and Ann Beeson, attorneys who challenged the government because they understood that reading the Koran is not a crime, but spying on Americans without a warrant is.

These are the stories of our America. My hope in telling them is to make civil liberties something more intensely personal. The "war on terror" isn't about the guys in orange jumpsuits; it's about who we are as a nation. Fighting for civil liberties means fighting for American values -- values like freedom, fairness, and respect for the rule of law.

In the end, I am optimistic that Americans will reject the cynicism and fear that have dominated the American narrative since 9/11 and that our story of hope and real patriotism is one that more Americans will hear.

On both the left and right, we've heard politicians tell stories that make us aspire to our best, while others have played to our worst fears. But what matters is how we the people respond.

Let's ask our leaders to tell the stories of our America -- stories of hope, of optimism, of courage and of American values that can withstand any storm that comes our way. If instead their stories stoke prejudice and fear, let's tell them we're not interested in how they end.

Even though politicians may do the talking, we shouldn't be passive listeners. And our nation will all be the better for it.