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.
Like his contemporary, George Marshall, Eisenhower emerged from an obscure, floundering military career to achieve the pinnacle of power, while guided by the work ethic of the loyal public servant. The film's first section, "Soldier," thus easily blends into the concluding act, "Statesman." Eisenhower's deft handling of wartime egos like British Gen. Bernard Montgomery and U.S. Gen. George Patton clearly prepared him for peacetime feuds with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Harry S. Truman. (The film's superb narrator is ironically David McCullough, perhaps Truman's greatest living champion.)
Mapped by a small battalion of historians with the invaluable, crusty Stephen E. Ambrose at the lead, Eisenhower's road to the White House is seen as a popular mandate for a national hero to navigate through the Cold War.
Yet for all the richly told episodes--the McCarthy hearings, the face-off with China and its shelling of Quemoy and Matsu islands, the sending of U.S. troops to enforce school desegregation in the South, and the Soviet capture of the American U-2 spy plane killing promising superpower peace talks--so much else is missing. Eisenhower's position within a Republican Party torn between isolationism and McCarthyism isn't analyzed any more than how the Republican right eventually denounced Eisenhower for not dismantling New Deal government and only "containing" communism. With so much stress here on Eisenhower's determination to control military spending, not a second of his chastening farewell speech warning of "the military-industrial complex" appears in this fine but incomplete work.