My friend, Bob Ney

I happen to be a proud liberal, one who gets to spout off on 300 radio stations every day. I also represent the liberal point of view as a commentator on the Fox News Channel. I oppose the policies of the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership (give me at least a full afternoon, and I could begin to share some of the reasons why).

I happen to be a proud liberal, one who gets to spout off on 300 radio stations every day. I also represent the liberal point of view as a commentator on the Fox News Channel. I oppose the policies of the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership (give me at least a full afternoon, and I could begin to share some of the reasons why).

Yet even in the rancid atmosphere that passes for political interaction in Washington these days, one can occasionally reach across the partisan and ideological divide to form genuine friendships with those on the other side. Thankfully, that’s what happened with me and my friend, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.

As Republicans distance themselves from him and Democrats use him as a campaign tactic, let me say that I’m heartbroken over what’s happened to him.

I got to know Bob when, as a freshman congressman, he used to appear opposite me on radio programs in the Ohio River Valley. Most people know the region only from flying overhead or speeding through on Interstate 70, so the place bears description.

Bob grew up in Belmont County, along the Ohio-West Virginia border, in the area close to Wheeling that used to be called the “Steel Belt.”  Times were better then, as his dad, a TV cameraman, and his mother, a buyer for a local department store, raised him and his sister in a solidly working-class neighborhood. Today, 14 percent of Belmont County’s residents live in poverty, 40 percent more than Ohioans as a whole. Incomes average 30 percent below the nation’s, and homes sell for about 40 percent less than those statewide.

What first struck me about Bob was how much the poverty in his home region tore at him. This wasn’t your typical Republican, nor did my reporter’s nose pick up the cynical, “I-feel-your-pain” shallowness you often see in politicians on both sides of the aisle.

No, here was a guy who really did remember where he came from. He knew that the kids he’d grown up with couldn’t afford to raise their children in quality housing, and he went to Washington determined to do something about it.

In the four years that he chaired the Subcommittee on Housing, he was relentless: 63 hearings, 22 housing bills signed into law. One bill he spearheaded helped 40,000 lower-income families buy their first homes; another renovated public housing units that had become badly dilapidated after decades of neglect.

The day he lost his House chairmanship he was conducting Katrina housing hearings in New Orleans. I called him to ask how he was feeling about losing the gavel. His reply: “I’m fine, I have a roof over my head and my family. These people in the Gulf have lost everything.”

You probably won’t read anywhere that Bob Ney spent his youth teaching English as a second language in pre-Khomeini Iran. He’s a multi-faceted guy, the only member of Congress fluent in Farsi.

His politics were similarly nuanced and complex. He was one of only three Republicans to vote against the President’s Patriot Act when it was first proposed in 2001, and he supported its curtailment five years later. “Everybody’s against terrorism, but there has to be reason in the way that we fight it,” he told reporters at the time. It was bold, courageous stuff from somebody whose district went 55 percent for Bush in 2000 and 57 percent for the president in 2004. I only wish some Democrats shared his courage.

Now, of course, he’s pleaded guilty to corruption in office, but the Bob Ney I know refused even to use his title to get a good table at a local restaurant when the line was out the door. I only wish he’d had a chance to tell his side in a court of law — and, take it from me, there is another side to this.

Today’s Justice Department, however, tries its evidence in the public press, not a courtroom, so it can’t be challenged or cross-examined. Those accused of high-profile wrongdoing nowadays are put through a grueling and costly ordeal where they are held upside-down by overpriced criminal defense lawyers, who drop them on their heads once all the money has been shaken out of their pockets.

While I’m heartbroken about Bob and angry as hell about the Justice Department’s slimy tactics, I don’t worry about him. I know my friend will look at incarceration not as the end of the road, but as a detour, a long-overdue chance to seek help for the alcoholism that has taken over more and more of his life these past few years.

He’ll be strong, and when all this is over, he’ll be a better man, a better husband and father — and he’ll still be my friend.

Ellen Ratner is Washington bureau chief for the Talk Radio News Service, and is a commentator on the Fox News Channel. All proceeds of her book,”Ready, Set , Talk!” co-authored by Kathie Scarrah, go to Hurricane Katrina relief.