Forgive me for backing into this one, but what follows is difficult for me to write. Maybe I shouldn't write it at all. You see, Harold Ford, the Tennessee congressman under a 19-count, 34-page indictment for bank fraud and conspiracy, is a friend: not a bosom buddy, but still a friend. He has been charged with crimes which, if true, could -- and ought to -- discredit him. He has pleaded not guilty, and presumably will have his day in court.

Those are among the reasons why, after a couple of long conversations with his administrative assistant, Jay Cooper, shortly after the indictment was handed up, I decided not to write about the case.

There are two reasons why I changed my mind. The first is that Ford's side of the story, as told to me by Cooper nearly a month ago, is interesting and credible. The second is that Ford is now under a gag order that, at least temporarily, keeps him from telling his side, which means that the crucial pretrial public opinion would be shaped entirely by the prosecutor. What follows -- unsubstantiated and unendorsed by me -- is the other side.

The Ford family business, the N. J. Ford & Sons Funeral Home in Memphis, borrowed some $800,000 to modernize its facility, only to be hit by a recession. Interest rates, which were pegged to the prime rate, soared from a manageable 8 percent to a devastating 21 percent, and the business was in trouble.

Ford's father, N. J. Ford, now deceased, asked his son for help. The congressman borrowed against his homes (in Washington and Memphis) and congressional salary, taking out personal loans of some $750,000 to help the business through its crisis.

When the funeral home's banker finally told him that what he needed was not more loans but investors, Harold Ford turned to a longtime friend -- the multimillionaire godfather and namesake of his second child. That friend, Jake Butcher, agreed in 1982 that he and his brother, C. H. Butcher (both bankers), would invest $350,000 in exchange for a one-third interest in the funeral home. Without any involvement on the part of the congressman, they created the Tenn Ford Corp. as the vehicle for that investment.

Meanwhile, Harold Ford, still on the line for the loans he had made to the business, was feeling a financial pinch. He asked the Butchers either to expedite the investment arrangement or make him a bridge loan pending completion of the deal. That was done, with Ford pledging his own funeral-home stock as security.

The investment was made, the Butchers were repaid, and that might have been the end of the story. But in the meantime, the Butchers' own banking empire collapsed under the weight of fraud charges. The U.S. attorney then went after Ford, in essence alleging that every loan he had obtained since roughly 1976 was a sham, notwithstanding the fact that every loan had been made at market rates and had been repaid or was being repaid on schedule.

The Butchers' investment was lost, except for seriously devalued funeral-home stock they then held. Lawyers for the bankruptcy trustees for the Butcher empire and the funeral home negotiated an agreement in 1983 that the funeral home would buy back the stock for $25,000 -- some 7 percent of its original value.

The prosecution alleges that the entire deal was a fraudulent scheme by which the Butchers would in effect purchase themselves a congressman. Ford's position is that the arrangement was, from his point of view, wholly legitimate. He also claims he is a victim of a feud with the U.S. attorney that goes back a number of years.

Ford and his supporters make another allegation that leaves me unmoved: that the prosecution of the congressman is in fact persecution, an attempt to discredit a strong black leader and, in effect, deny blacks generally the fruits of their civil-rights advances.

I buy none of that. It smacks of what Robert Woodson, head of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda, said of other black politicians charged with abuse of their position: ''Far too often, when {they} are caught with one hand in the public till, they reach with the other for their civil-rights credit cards.''

But Ford is not charged with abusing his office or converting public funds to his own use. He is charged -- unfairly, he insists -- with bank fraud, and his alternative explanation of what transpired is not, on its face, unbelievable.

That is the other side, and I thought you ought to hear it.