THERE WAS A TIME when waving the flag got you labeled nothing but a patriot, and nobody minded being labeled a patriot; a time when the federal government endeavored to protect the environment from commercial interests that would exploit it; a time when the whole country was almost unanimously captivated by a great big great man in the Oval Office.

He didn't have media advisers, and he wasn't coached on what kind of image to project. He projected himself, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, one of the most popular in the history of the country, and the subject of an extraordinary, moving, magnificent TV documentary called "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt." Just about everyone should see it, but at the moment just about no one can.

The program, narrated stirringly by George C. Scott and scored rousingly with the music of John Philip Sousa, has been completed for weeks, but the economics of television and the mechanics of television distribution are such that the program will not be widely televised for at least nine months, maybe a year--too late to constitute commemoration of the 125th anniversary of TR's birth on Oct. 27. Producer-director Harrison Engle, who gave four years of his life to making the film, with much of that time spent prowling around to find invaluable long-lost footage, will have to wait for some image-polishing corporation to spring forward with the money to finance distribution of his devout labor of love.

Engle thought of producing the show for public TV; then he changed his mind. "I wanted it to be seen by the widest possible audience," he says from Los Angeles. "And personally, I haven't thrown in the towel yet for quality programming on commercial television. I've been told it will be a 'tough sell,' but I have to believe there is still room for this kind of thing on commercial TV."

Room has yet to be found. The three networks are not interested; they do not accept documentaries produced by anyone but their own news divisions, although ABC News, with its "Closeup" series, has made some judicious exceptions to this rule. But even if it were sold to ABC, the producers would barely be able to recover their production costs--roughly $400,000, bravely bankrolled by the Gannett Broadcasting Group.

At the moment, "Indomitable" rests in the lap of SFM Media Services, one of the classiest syndication outfits in the country. SFM is trying to interest a large corporation in full sponsorship. SFM president Stan Moger says of the program, "It's wonderful." But he also says it will probably not be shown until late next year. "It takes a good six to nine months at the bare minimum" to put an ad hoc network of stations together and round up sponsorship, Moger says.

Inscrutable forces move slowly in Television Land. Where is Herbie Schmertz when we really need him? (probably in England, looking for highfalutin "masterpieces").

When Roosevelt was in the White House, says Scott in the program's narration, he was considered "the most entertaining man in America," and the program is fittingly entertaining in telling his story. It also, for some reason, seems a story particularly worth telling now, when some of the causes TR espoused are in danger (he advocated giving women the vote, by the way), and when the idea of having heroes, especially in government, seems to have become quaintly outre'. Today, people in high office come across as, by and large, eminently domitable.

Roosevelt led a spectacular, Boys' Life existence even before he became president, roaming the plains of the Old West (in mourning for his mother and the wife who died in childbirth), cleaning up corruption in New York as head of the city's police board, leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, then assuming the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901.

The program, a stunning visual supplement to Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," may down-play Roosevelt's "big stick" foreign policy (a policy that led to the opening of the Panama Canal), but it justifiably emphasizes his role as a conservationist, and this serves as a reminder of just how profane the nihilistic James Watt really is. It also includes rare, privileged glimpses of Roosevelt and his times--such memorabilia as an early Edison silent film in which an actor playing Teddy was the hero of a revised version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." When, during a hunt, Roosevelt refused to shoot a cornered bear in real life, or so the story goes, the Teddy Bear was born.

Kemp Niver, an expert on historical films, spent weeks transferring antique paper prints to 16mm film so they could be used in the program. Then Engle had the film computer-enhanced to eliminate the jerkiness so often seen in old newsreels (and so ably imitated by Woody Allen with "Zelig") and ran the show through another computer that was able to exorcise much of the deterioration in the original film. Some of the footage of turn-of-the-century Buffalo, where Teddy took the oath of office, was shot by Edwin S. Porter, considered the father of the narrative film in America for his direction later of "The Great Train Robbery."

Roosevelt's life was the stuff of which not even most movies dare to be made (unwisely, Engle supplements the actual footage with some present-day reenactments, a minor distraction). As president, he sneaked away from the Secret Service one night to take a president's first ride on a submarine. He also took a test flight in a primitive biplane, an occurrence recorded in a newspaper headline that told readers, " 'Bully,' He Says As He Descends." On safari in Africa, after he left office, Roosevelt stopped a rhino at 13 paces. Running unsuccessfully for president later on his own Bull Moose ticket, he made an entire speech after being struck by a would-be assassin's bullet; the bullet stayed in his body for the rest of his life. At 55, he undertook a dangerous trip along an uncharted river in Brazil. "I had to go," he said. "It was my last chance to be a boy."

When he died at 60, Scott says in the film, he had led "a dozen lives." The program includes an elegantly poignant shot of Roosevelt walking off into the distance among the assembled terns on Pelican Island off the coast of Louisiana. The sense of admiration and awe one feels is immediate, as if Roosevelt had wandered off only yesterday and might wander back tomorrow.

There are lots of sad comments where American television is concerned--but it's a particularly sad comment that it's so hard to sell history to the television audience. Usually it has to be hoked up as a multi-generational mini-series with all kinds of soap opera slop. Producer David Gerber is promising that his "George Washington" mini-series, airing this season on CBS (and now being filmed in the Virginia countryside), will be straightforward and not silly, but that might mean the show will fail where grievously contrived hokum like "The Winds of War" succeeded: in the ratings.

Real stories are usually so much better than grapefruit from Hollywood, especially in Roosevelt's case. "In great leaders, we read our hope," says Scott in the narration. In few television programs can much hope be read; "Indomitable Teddy" is a glorious exception. Eventually, it will see the light of air, and at least a few million people will be grateful and thrilled.