The message from the White House said simply: "The president would like you to drop in this afternoon with a few other people to talk about what is going on in the Middle East."

It was sent Sunday morning, Oct. 14, to five of President Bush's friends and acquaintances, inviting them to the president's third-floor office in the family quarters of the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion for what became a two-hour "give-and-take" on the Persian Gulf crisis, according to one of the participants.

On another occasion two weeks ago, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger went to the White House for an appointment with national security adviser Brent Scowcroft that turned into an hour-and-a-half talk with Bush about the gulf crisis. Scowcroft was delayed on the phone, and the president came out and ushered Kissinger into his own office.

For others who remain anonymous, including former government officials and some members of Congress, there have been similar unpublicized discussions with the president about the gulf crisis during small dinners in the family quarters.

As the Iraq crisis goes on, President Bush is reaching beyond aides to friends and acquaintances for ideas and advice, something he often did during his pre-White House days when confronted with problems. These private meetings have a different tenor, participants say, than the more publicized and much larger consultations the president has held with the congressional bipartisan leadership group, the latest of which took place Wednesday.

The sessions with members of Congress have occurred behind closed doors in the Cabinet room, but they have been followed by media events. White House officials generally expect that those from Congress who attend the sessions will disclose to reporters almost everything that transpired.

"This is meant to be public," said one Bush administration official involved in arranging the congressional sessions. "It gives the president a chance to make a case, and this president likes to hear what they're saying. It gives them a chance to say they told the president thus and such."

The meetings are "supposed to be an echo-chamber. {The Congress members} come out and echo what the president has said, if it works."

But increasingly the sessions appear to have more than a public relations purpose. Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a main proponent of the consultation process, said after Wednesday's session that, as the president gets "more confidence in the group, he'll put more information on the table." Fascell sees these sessions as allowing the president and the bipartisan leaders of Congress to work out their differences in private and then present a common public front.

In any case, Bush has been determined not to limit his soundings to Congress and members of his own administration. "He is more active and open than any president I've ever seen," said one former top official who has served several presidents and has met with Bush about the gulf crisis.

The president's tendency to cast a wide net in seeking opinions and counsel has engendered concern among some familiar with the process. "This approach can be incredibly dangerous when dealing with a foreign policy crisis," said one former official and longtime Bush acquaintance.

One danger comes from the perception that such multiple consultations can create for the public. "It gives the impression that you are searching for a policy and don't yet have one of your own," one participant said.

A second danger is the possiblity that the president's private reflections will be made public, particularly when they involve possible future actions that affect other countries.

For these reasons, Bush, in both his announced and unannounced meetings, has often avoided responding to complex or direct questions or statements, deferring in some situations to Scowcroft, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney -- or often just changing the subject.

At Wednesday's bipartisan congressional session, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) made a strong statement against military action and in favor of letting the U.N.-sanctioned economic embargo against Iraq take effect. He then put a series of direct questions to Bush about what would happen if war occurred. Obey asked about the level of casualties Bush was prepared to accept, how the military battle would unfold and what the president expected the region to look like after a war.

Bush's response, sources said, was that this particular meeting was not the place to deal with such questions. After the White House session, a classified briefing was arranged for Obey on another day.

At the Oct. 14 meeting, a comparable situation occurred. The participants along with Bush and Scowcroft were Sens. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), Lucius D. Battle, who once served as ambassador to Egypt and assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Washington lawyer Robert S. Strauss, who was once special presidential envoy to the Middle East, and former CIA director Richard Helms, who also served as ambassador to Iran.

Each has a personal relationship with Bush, and those who agreed to talk to a reporter about the meeting did so on condition they would not directly quote what the president said.

Sitting in an easy chair in a room he uses as an office, Bush opened with a few general remarks which turned in part on an issue that remains central in the conflict with Iraq -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's attempt to link a solution to his invasion of Kuwait with resolution of the Palestinian issue.

One of the Mideast experts told the president that although the United States may not like the linkage, its attraction for the Arabs had to be recognized and dealt with, understanding its appeal to Egyptians, Syrians and Saudi Arabians. Bush did not reply.

At another point, Bush was asked whether diplomatic exchanges were being pursued with Iraq directly or indirectly. Again Bush did not respond, even when the point was raised a second time.

After the session, Scowcroft made it clear that the president could not react to such a question, but one participant said he was left with the feeling that "Bush seems to have precluded negotiation without first getting Saddam's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait."

At many of the sessions, Bush has gone around the room asking each participant's opinion, occasionally breaking in to make a point of his own or responding to questions. Some advice he has been given in private has been very direct, sources said.

He has been told, for instance, by a respected former government official that "his big problem is not ideas, but to come to a point," one source said. But others have urged him to remain patient in this post-Cold War era.

In the Oct. 14 session and in each of several congressional meetings, participants most frequently have counseled Bush to delay taking any military action against Iraq and certainly not move without the support of the United Nations and those Arab states allied with the United States.

Bush "showed a sense of frustration" with the situation, one participant in the Oct. 14 session said, but did not attempt to sway anyone. "He was listening, not arguing," a source said. "What do you think?" he would say to the others after a point was made. "There was no editorializing," the source said.

No one at that Sunday afternoon session "expected him to lay out his plan," one of those present said, but Bush had the use of military force on his mind even then.

"If he could get a congressional authorization {to use force} free of ambiguity," this source said, "he would probably go for it . . . even though he was told that would be raising the stakes."

At the congressional sessions, the president has been more combative. There was sharp give-and-take this week over Bush's recent announcement that up to 200,000 more U.S. troops would be sent to the gulf and Cheney's statement that there were no plans to relieve the 230,000 forces already in place.

As he had in an earlier congressional session, Bush repeatedly cited the American hostages in Kuwait "and his concern for them and their suffering," one Republican legislator said.

Bush made clear to the bipartisan group that he knew he needed congressional support in the gulf crisis and planned to continue consultations, with the next one to come after he returns from his Thanksgiving trip to Saudi Arabia. A White House aide said the more private exchanges also are continuing.