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Teddy's Rough Ride

American soldiers were pinned down under a scorching sun when Col. Theodore Roosevelt mounted his horse and, armed only with a revolver, led his Rough Riders in a desperate assault against blistering fire by Spanish troops.

"They walked up that hill at the speed of a death march, falling right and left. And Teddy Roosevelt's group, the Rough Riders, took the highest casualties of anybody in the war," says Tweed Roosevelt, a descendant of Teddy.

Mr. Roosevelt's commander recommended him for the medal of honor, but he never received it.

Last month Congress sent President Clinton legislation finally authorizing the medal. It would seem a done deal, except that the army has the final word, and the army is not eager to re-open a century-old case.

A century ago, historians say, politics and Mr. Roosevelt's own personality stood between him and the medal. "Narcissists like Theodore Roosevelt often rub career bureaucrats up the wrong way," says Edmund Harris, Roosevelt biographer. "They don't like flamboyant people from outside who have this enormous sense of identity. And I think, therefore, he campaigned a little too hard, and it was his fault."

Now, the National Portrait Gallery is honoring him as an icon of the 20th century. After San Juan Hill, he went on to become president. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He created the national parks system. But Mr. Roosevelt said there was one thing he always regretted: not receiving the medal of honor.

"He said that he really wanted it for his children, but I think he wanted it for himself," Tweed Roosevelt says. "I mean, he believed he deserved it, and he wanted it."

There's something about Mr. Roosevelt that speaks to Americans. He was brash, tireless, the man who walked softly but carried a big stick. He ushered America into the 20th century. As the 21st century approaches, his admirers argue that this country needs heroes more than ever.