Ever since Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lent his set of videotapes of "The Civil War" to President Bush, the White House had been trying to set up a meeting between Bush and Ken Burns, the documentary's producer-director. Then Thursday night, a Bush aide called Burns to ask if he, his wife, Amy, and their daughters, Sarah, 7, and Lilly, 3, could be at the White House the next morning.

Could they ever! Not even living in remote Walpole, N.H., could keep Burns and his family from accepting an invitation like that.

"It was a window of opportunity," Burns said yesterday of the appointment. "Of particular delight was that the president invited my family too."

At 4:30 a.m. Friday, the Burnses hit the highway for the nearest airport, a 1 1/2-hour drive away in Hartford, Conn. Once aboard the flight to Washington, whom should Burns encounter but two former chairmen of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the very organization that, with General Motors, sponsored the 11-hour documentary produced for public television by Washington's own WETA, Channel 26.

Neither University of Massachusetts Chancellor Joseph D. Duffey (NEH chairman 1977-81) nor William Bennett (1981-85) was a stranger to Burns. In fact, Bennett, now the nation's drug policy director, has been involved in nearly every other documentary the 37-year-old filmmaker has made, including "The Brooklyn Bridge" and "Huey Long." At the White House, yet a third -- and the current -- NEH chairman, Lynne Cheney, awaited the Burnses, who were joined by his brother and coproducer Ric Burns and production assistant Lynn Novick.

In the Oval Office, the conversation ranged from Bush's fascination with the film -- "He was visibly moved. It was clear that he'd seen the whole series," said Burns -- to a Lucite-mounted, limited-edition baseball "card" sitting on a credenza that pictures youthful-looking Yale first baseman George Bush. That sparked a discussion on the history of baseball, Burns's next film project, in which he hopes to include an interview with Bush.

There also were introductions to fellow New Hampshirite John Sununu and -- in the Rose Garden -- Millie and Ranger Bush. Back in the Oval Office, at Sarah Burns's request, Bush scrawled what is probably the ultimate in notes explaining a school-day absence.

"To the third grade of The Grammar School {of Putney, Vt.}, good luck," the president wrote. He signed it "George Bush."

A picture of John Adams, America's first vice president, hangs in his 43rd successor's office at the White House. And therein lies a tale that Dan Quayle told 2,000 listeners last week at the annual Susan G. Komen Foundation Awards luncheon in Dallas, where he and Marilyn Quayle were recipients of the 1990 Betty Ford Award for their work in informing the public about breast cancer.

"For me to receive this award from a First Lady, though in absentia, whose name is synonymous with courage is both flattering and yes, even as vice president, a bit intimidating," Quayle said. "Intimidating because my presence here this afternoon confirms an emerging truism of the 1990s -- namely, that behind every great woman there is a man struggling to get within camera range. Marilyn knows what I mean."

It was at last year's luncheon that Marilyn Quayle revealed that her mother had died of breast cancer. In the year that followed, Quayle said he watched his wife "fight her own disease and succeed." (She underwent a hysterectomy this summer.) "I have never been prouder of Marilyn than during this past year."

Recalling that the disease also touched the Adams family, Quayle told how John Adams conveyed the news of his daughter Nabby's death from breast cancer "to his friend Thomas Jefferson in a postscript that still moves us across the centuries. It said:

" 'Your friend, my only daughter, expired yesterday morning in the arms of her husband, her son, her daughter, her father and her mother, her husband's two sisters, and two of her nieces, in the 49th year of her age, 46 of which she was the healthiest of us all; since which she has been a monument to suffering and to patience.' "

Established for education, treatment and research involving breast cancer, the Betty Ford Award was presented to the Quayles by Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the former First Lady, who was the award's first recipient. Mrs. Ford was unable to attend because she is recovering from foot surgery.

Both Betty Ford and another former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, underwent mastectomies for breast cancer during their husbands' presidencies. Mrs. Reagan, who attended the luncheon, received the award in 1988.

Barbara Bush was the host, but it was Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder who was standing just inside the door yesterday at the White House. The occasion was a reception for recipients of the National Rehabilitation Hospital's 1990 Victory Awards, one of whom -- Ben Vereen -- wanted Wilder to introduce him at a related gala last night at the Kennedy Center.

While Wilder looked over the state rooms virtually unnoticed, Vereen and fellow entertainer Patty Duke were being asked for autographs.

They were there because they both overcame emotional disorders and, along with I. King Jordan, Gallaudet University's first deaf president, were among the 38 recipients of the awards.

At the reception, Duke, who will portray herself in an ABC-TV film version of her best-selling autobiography, "Call Me Anna," on Nov. 11, talked about battling manic depression from her early teens, going through "out-of-control cycles of euphoria and psychotic behavior, then depression and often suicidal depression." Eight years ago, "too tired to run anymore," Duke, winner of an Oscar and three Emmys, said she sought professional help, was diagnosed and began lithium therapy.

"Within three weeks, I began to lead a more ordinary life. I was in control -- no ill effects, no mood swings, with appropriate responses to the stimulus," she said. "What I hope my speaking out now does is make people less afraid to go for help so they can lead healthy, productive lives without the real threat of self-destruction."

As for those who cannot afford treatment, Duke said: "If the worst happens in the field of mental health {budget}, I will be among many lobbying for funding and able to demonstrate that here was a person who was a complete drain on her household, went through all her money, had nothing and could have been on the street as easily as anyone else."

Citing National Institute of Mental Health statistics, she said that "90 percent of street people are suffering from some form of mental disorder. They have no money to get the treatment -- so the vicious cycle continues."

Earlier in the day, Barbara Bush was in Ottawa for the International Conference on Literacy and Correction to give out awards to five American educators who taught prison inmates how to read.

The First Lady flew up to Canada in the morning and returned home in time to host the White House Victory Awards reception.

Today, she is off on another one-day trip, this time to political fund-raisers in Ohio and Kentucky. In Columbus, she'll be worth $125 a glimpse to supporters of George Voinovich, running for governor against Attorney General Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. In Cincinnati, the look will cost couples $500 at a fund-raiser for Ken Blackwell in his race for Congress against Mayor Charles Luken. An additional $500 buys a "Barbara and Us" photo. In Louisville, where Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is running against businessman Harvey Sloane, the price tag is $125.