Ike PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings. Stars E. G. Marshall. Writers: Sidney and David Carroll. Producer: Diana Laptook. Director: Charles Jarrott. Executive producer: David Susskind. Presented by WNET, New York. Huey Long PBS, Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings. Narrated by David McCullough. Produced and directed by Ken Burns. Presented by WETA, Washington, D.C. Two engrossing PBS programs demonstrate television's power for public service, when it faces up to its responsibilities. Each chooses a vital subject and investigates it with incisive vitality, illuminating the past and hinting at contemporary analogies. Then each leaves viewers to ponder the meaning of the facts presented.
In recent years it's become clear that Dwight David Eisenhower was not the simple soul so many people believed him to be. He will be remembered as a straightforward and ingenuous leader. His farewell address amazed observers by warning the nation of the dangers of the combined powers of the military establishment and the industrial complex.
``Ike,'' a provocative documentarylike drama based on extensive research, makes it clear that Eisenhower was a sophisticate in the best sense of the word -- a man who understood himself and the world around him.
The program uses a simple but effective format: A graduate student working on her master's thesis visits Ike (played by E. G. Marshall) at Gettysburg in 1967, two years before his death, and asks lots of questions. Eisenhower -- walking around the old Civil War battlefield, putting a few golf balls, lunching with her -- reminisces about his early life, military years, political experiences. We learn a lot about the man, his wife, Mamie, the army, war, and the presidency as he saw it:
He termed the death of his first-born son, Dowd, ``the great disaster of my life.''
General Douglas MacArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb in Korea. Many of Eisenhower's advisors were in favor of using it against China.
On war: ``You must never go to war in response to emotions of anger and resentment. You do it prayerfully, and, if you can help it, you don't do it at all.''
Ike's explanation for his lifetime of successes? ``I was often in the right place at the right time.'' The right place and the right time on Wednesday are PBS and 8 p.m.
``Huey the IV'' or ``messiah of the rednecks'' is what some people called Louisiana senator and ex-governor Huey P. Long. Fifty-one years ago the man who stole his slogan from William Jennings Bryan (``Every man a king'') was, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger, ``as close to a dictator as we've ever had.'' When he was assassinated in 1935, he was well on the way to running against President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Long was a populist who lashed out at the rich and the powerful. According to historian David McCullough, he managed to amass ``the largest concentration of political power in one man's hands the country had ever seen.'' The documentary by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns uses archival footage as well as interviews with people who knew or studied Long: local politicians, voters, historians, and national poet laureate Robert Penn Warren. What emerges is a stirring and disturbing film about a demogogue who, in the words of Warren, ``could not tell his greatness from his ungreatness.''