Like the other "American Experience" presidential biographies, "Eisenhower" (9 p.m. tonight, KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 8 p.m., KVCR-TV Channel 24) is no substitute for reading a book. It represents the classic trade-off in educational television: For every foot of rare, sometimes astonishing archival film imagery is some missing essential fact or observation that's the stuff of historical discovery.
At a 2 1/2-hour length, the trade-off may not appear to be so extreme here. But the missing Eisenhower ultimately looms large in producers Austin Hoyt and Adriana Bosch's handsome portrait.
Details, though, bubble up to the surface when you least expect them. Eisenhower, for instance, was born David Dwight, and then his mother reversed the two names. He was an undisciplined rough-houser growing up in Abilene, Kan., and only went to West Point for the free education and the football program.
His Saul-to-Paul conversion to a rising military leader happened during a stint in Panama; why he changed goes strangely unexplained in a film constantly attentive to the man's personal life (especially the rumored affair with his military driver-secretary, Kay Summersby). But his rise through the ranks on the coattails of Douglas MacArthur is clear enough, and his ascent to the rank of supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II is truly incredible in light of where he came from.