People just can't get the name straight. Some call it the Natural Endowment for the Humanities. Or the National Endowment for the Amenities. Or they get it confused with that other endowment.

For the record, it's the National Endowment for the Humanities -- the quiet, noncontroversial endowment -- and it celebrated its 25th anniversary with a black-tie pat on the back last night at the Willard Hotel. The event was also a chance to show off the NEH's latest project, "The Civil War," a documentary miniseries kicking off the Public Broadcasting Service's new season on Sunday.

Looks like it's already a hit. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, who has seen the 11-hour program, said that director-producer Ken Burns had mastered the art of federal funding.

"When someone has produced something as perfect as Mr. Burns has," said Powell, "his work will protect him from any potential criticism or controversy."

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president of WETA-TV, which co-produced the program, gave a totally unbiased, objective reaction to the series: "It's probably the best public television series produced in the United States."

"The NEH's involvement and the nurturing that WETA gave it over five years could only come from institutions which are devoted to education," said Rockefeller. "The federal government has to point toward what it believes is important."

The superlatives were flowing thick and fast from last night's audience, which included two stars of the series, narrators Jason Robards and Julie Harris, 220 friends of NEH Chairman Lynne V. Cheney and Civil War buffs.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who happens to be married to the endowment chairman, called the series "the best thing I've ever seen on the Civil War" but declined to name his favorite general in the series. "I'd be reluctant to endorse any one person of the period," he said. "Someone would run out and say, 'That's how Cheney thinks.' "

The audience also included Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Sens. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.); Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the husband of the WETA executive; Chuck Robb (D-Va.); Ted Stevens (R-Alaska); Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.); and Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.); House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) (who had to leave before the creme brulee to go back to the House floor for a vote on defense spending); and Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the only guy who showed up without a tuxedo.

"I didn't figure I had to have one if I've got the checkbook," he said with a smile. He was right; there wasn't even a raised eyebrow -- Regula sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee that approves annual funding for the NEH.

Unlike its beleaguered sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds publicly visible artists, performers and authors, the NEH gives grants for academic research and programs. The Civil War miniseries is one of the few projects funded by the endowment that is directly seen by the public.

"I think a fundamental difference is that we always know what the projects are that we're funding," said Lynne Cheney. "I think it's more difficult for the arts." She credited the grant process and her staff for the endowment's success. "Many are academics who are remarkably concerned with detail. They pore over grant applications with a great deal of care. It's an interesting place."

Cheney could afford to be modest. Everyone else was throwing bouquets in her direction, including her husband ("I'm strictly here in a supporting role") and Simpson.

"There's been a consistency of leadership there with Lynne Cheney," said Simpson. "The NEA went through a period without a chief administrator and by the time {Chairman} John Frohnmayer got here, all this stuff was festered up. Lynne has been right there, hands on, with no gaps."

But in Washington, a little red, white and blue never hurts either.

The guests were treated to a lavish dinner, a moving preview of the show and Julie Harris reciting the Gettysburg Address. The evening ended with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung by the U.S. Army Chorus and a preview edition of the $50 companion book that each guest received courtesy of General Motors, which also provided major funding for the project.

"Just so there's no misunderstanding: We didn't fund the Civil War," joked General Motors Chairman Robert Stempel. "We funded a film about the Civil War."