Robert B. "Ben" Johnson, director of President Clinton's One America diversity initiative, beckoned me to his window at the Old Executive Office Building--with its splendid view of the White House next door.

Johnson, 55, had clearly come a long way. Born in poverty to black sharecroppers in Arkansas, he grew up to become a special assistant to the president of the United States.

But he wasn't all smiles.

"The one thing that's clear to me is that this president has reached out and appointed people of color, and we've worked well right alongside our colleagues to help score a lot of victories for the country," he said. "But it can be disheartening to see ourselves screened out on these television shows."

When the new television drama about life inside the White House, "The West Wing," began on NBC, it featured no black stars. A black character was added shortly after the show's debut, but when the fall season began, there were no black leading characters on any of the new major network programs.

Of course, getting more black faces on television is not the most pressing civil rights issue of the day. Martin Luther King Jr. would surely roll over in his grave if that's what the freedom struggle had boiled down to.

But the quality of African American images being projected in the mass media is a barometer of sorts. If something as simple as getting positive portrayals of blacks on television has proved so difficult, imagine how much work it's going to take to accomplish more substantive goals such as reducing racial disparities in heath care.

"We simply must have more black role models in the mass media, and the reluctance of national broadcasters to do so is a real downer," Johnson said.

Several television networks, in response to recent protests by the NAACP, have agreed to make improvements. Earlier this month, NBC and ABC signed agreements with the NAACP to hire more black writers and to promote internships and scholarships for black youths. And on Wednesday, for example, CBS is scheduled to air a medical drama called "City of Angels," in which the top stars are black.

However, according to Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, the black-run hospital in the series isn't accredited, and the place is "depicted as being even more trouble-prone, accident-prone and incompetence-prone than other TV hospitals."

An e-mail campaign by blacks is nevertheless underway urging viewers to support the show, lest TV executives cancel it and say, "See, we gave them a drama with black stars and they still didn't watch it."

What a Catch-22.

Hopefully, the mass media will one day catch up with reality.

Consider this: Of the 28 assistants to President Clinton, 14 are women or minorities or both. Minyon Moore, the president's political director, is a black woman. Bob Nash, a black man, heads presidential personnel; he recommends whom to hire in the upper levels of the federal government.

Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the great civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice, is the presidential assistant through whom the Cabinet reports to Clinton. Mickey Ibarra is in charge of intergovernmental relations, which is the White House link to the nation's governors and mayors.

Mark Lindsay is director of the office of White House administration, and Terry Edmonds is the head of speechwriting.

All are African Americans.

"My reaction to 'The West Wing' is that while the show certainly depicts the hectic pace of White House activity, it doesn't show the true color of the staff," Johnson said.

His One America office was created a year ago to continue the work of Clinton's task force on race. The mission, as Johnson sees it, is to help close the "opportunity gap" for disadvantaged minorities and poor whites.

Education is the key, and Johnson is a strong advocate of smaller class sizes, more teachers and larger corporate investments in underserved communities.

Johnson joined the Clinton administration in 1993 as associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. He had worked for the Carter administration in 1979 in the Office of Consumer Affairs and served several years as troubleshooter for former District Mayor Marion Barry.

Johnson, a native of Marion, Ark., moved to South Bend, Ind., at the age of 5. During the summer, his family would take a train to visit relatives back in Arkansas, and he can still remember having to leave his seat and move to a rear car as soon as the train crossed into the South.

In 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting Money, Miss., was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Johnson was 12 at the time, and his mother, fearing for his life, began leaving him in South Bend whenever she'd visit relatives down south.

Young Ben couldn't see some of his cousins and childhood friends.

"We've come a long way from the back of the bus," Johnson said, staring out at the White House. "But while I'm satisfied that I got the opportunity, I'm not satisfied that we are where we ought to be."

Like a lot of blacks who have made it, Johnson has a fascinating story to tell.

Too bad TV executives don't get it.