Thursday, January 19, 2017

Book Review: The Transcendent Beatitude Of Dan Leo's 'Railroad Train to Heaven'

She looks like my junior high school librarian, but that's another story
I have just finished reading a great antidote for the totally effed up era in which we live -- Dan Leo's marvelous Railroad Train to Heaven, a pean to a simpler time when both culture and soda were pop and a self-effacing poet from Northeast Philadelphia by the name of Arnold Schnabel was communing with a chain-smoking Jesus.  Conveniently, they both smoked Pall Malls.   
Identifying the primary cause of the effed-upedness of the era is a piece of cake (or perhaps a bite of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet) while defining Railroad Train to Heaven is a good deal more challenging: It is a coming-of-age novel not unlike Catcher in the Rye, although Arnold is 42 years old.  It has the elements the best pulp of L. Sprague de Camp.  The descriptive richness of Marcel Proust.  The open tap consciousness of Jack Kerouac.  The whimsy of Terry Pratchett.  A dollop of Philip K. Dick.  Yet it is original.   
Railroad Train to Heaven is the first volume of excerpts from Schnabel's sprawling memoir, which he wrote in small copybooks.  It opens in the summer of 1963 with Arnold on indefinite leave from the Reading Railroad and recovering from a mental breakdown in the guest house of his three maiden aunts down the shore (as they say in Philly) in the Victorian town of Cape May, New Jersey. Home is the rowhouse neighborhood of Olney in Philadelphia's Near Northeast (a geographic designation long out of vogue) where he lives with his widowed mother and has worked as a brakeman for the Reading since age seventeen.  He is an appropriately guilt-burdened Catholic, usher at St. Helena's R.C. Church, ever the gentleman while socially inept, utterly inexperienced in love if not lust, and enjoys writing lyric poetry and drinking Manhattan cocktails and Schaefer's beer.   
Familiarly if obscurely known as the Rhyming Brakeman, Arnold has been contributing a small masterpiece of poetry a week (self described as touching on "the ordinary life of ordinary people") to the estimable Olney Times for decades.  Ensconced in Cape May, he falls in love for the first time and careens into a series of sometimes hallucinatory experiences with people ordinary and famous, not to mention the ever-in-need-of-a-light Jesus.  Space and time are delightfully altered, but Arnold still dutifully submits a poem each week no matter how warped the contours of his not exactly Boswellian life have become.   
He is befriend by beatniks after his nightly swim off Cape May Point.  They invite him back to their apartment, where he has his first taste of marijuana.
Rocket Man put a record album on.  It was a very strange sort of saxophone jazz, strange to me, anyway, who normally never listened to anything stranger than Lawrence Welk or Larry Ferrari, although I guess they're pretty strange too in their own ways. 
"You dig coal train, Man?" said Gypsy Dave. 
"Coal train?" I asked. 
"Yeah, Train, man." 
"Train?" 
"Yeah, John, coal train." 
Now I was totally confused.  Why was he calling me John? 
I said nothing. 
The strange saxophone wailed. 
"I think he digs the train," said Rocket Man, coming over to where we were sitting on the floor around one of those great wooden spools that you normally wrap cable around. He sat down, smiling.  "Doncha, Arnold.  You dig the train, man." 
"Well, of course I do," I said, doing one of my little imitations of a sane person.  "The train, after all, has really been my whole life -- " 
"Your whole life?" said Gypsy Dave.  "He was rolling another "joint" on a record album cover.  "That is really heavy," he said.  "I mean, I dig the train, and the bird too, and you know, a lot of cats, but I wouldn't say they're my life.  But the train means that much to you." 
Everyone in Cape May (well, at least the townies) knows that Arnold has had a breakdown, and he is chagrined to find that women -- and a cavalry of them chase Arnold through the pages of Railroad Train to Heaven, including the lovely Elektra, a Bohemian jeweler who is his first inamorata -- are attracted to him because of that.
What was it about insanity that women found so appealing? 
. . . Why now?  Why were all these females emerging from the woodwork only now? Where had they been hiding during all my former grey celibate years?  Was I that much different now? 
Suddenly in the middle of a flight, in the middle of a step, I halted, panting, sweating. 
Yes, I was that different. 
Who or what had I been before my breakdown? 
I'll tell you what: a sort of walking mummy, mechanically thumping through the world swathed in the thick stale wrappings of a personality that wanted to worship and serve some imaginary great father who had deigned to grant me this half-life I lived. 
It took going insane for me to shed those stale wrappings.  Perhaps something inside me had willed me to go insane in order to shed those foul rags.  But shed them I did, and I walked out of that hospital like a naked child. 
Later -- much later -- Arnold is struck by lightning on the beach.  He wakes up and Jesus is standing over him with that eternal cigarette in his fingers.  They are in front of a wrought-iron gate, beyond which a cobblestone path leads to a very large Victorian house. 
"Where are we?" I asked. 
"That's my father's house," he said. 
"Am I dead?" 
"That's a very good question, Arnold." 
"You don't know?" 
"If I knew for sure, I'd tell you.  Between you and me it doesn't look too good, but, look, we'd better go talk to Peter and my old man."  
My only complaint with Railroad Train to Heaven: If this were a starred review, I would knock a half a star off the big five because, in contrast to the wonderful storytelling, the typography and formatting of the trade paperback edition has all the sizzle of a 1963 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon.
Dan Leo identifies himself as a professor of classics and physical education at Olney Community College (which yet again did not qualify for a post-season bowl game last year), but I and other readers know him from his most excellent blog, where he has been excerpting Arnold's memoirs since 2007. 
Beyond the effed-upedness of the real world, literature today is typically much too derivative.  But Railroad Train to Heaven is very, very good.  It is truly original, and like great literature, its seemingly simple, laugh-out-loud narrative belies deeper meanings lurking just below the surface of Arnold's fantastical experiences. 
Leo promises additional volumes.  Arnold never exaggerated, so I have to believe him.  

'Call It Peace Or Call It Treason, Call It Love Or Call It Reason, But . . . '

I AIN’T MARCHING ANYMORE
By Phil Ochs

Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I've killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying I saw many more dying
But I ain't marchin' anymore

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brothers
And so many others But I ain't marchin' anymore
For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning
That I ain't marchin' anymore

Now the labor leader's screamin'
when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more,

No I ain't marchin' any more

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

With All Due Disrespect: The Case Against Trump's Legitimacy Is Overwhelming

DONKEYHOTEY  
The hoary rituals underway in Washington this week are repeated without fail every four or eight years. 
The lobbyists' revolving door spins ever faster.  The news media courts the new Inside the Beltway players and they the news media.  There is a mad scramble for the best corner offices.  The hills are alive with the sound of paper shredders.  And at noon on a day in the third week of the first month of the new year following the quadrennial ratfuck known as the presidential election, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in the winner. But while Donald John Trump ostensibly will become president of these United States on Friday, unlike his 44 predecessors, he was not elected.  He was elevated from sleazy celebrity television stardom by Russian hackers and the director of the FBI in a before-the-fact coup d'├ętat.    
Absent a constitutional or statutory mechanism, this is a done deal and not merely a really bad case of partisan sour grapes as your crazy brother-in-law in the cherry red baseball cap tried to tell you at Christmas dinner. 
And although vaguely akin to the asterisk next to George Bush's name that leads to a footnote about the Supreme Court throwing the 2000 election to him, the Orwellian circumstances surrounding Trump's elevation are a cancer that will eat away at his presidency, although not for the next four years.  This is because Trump probably will not serve a full term, or anything near it as the skeletons -- as opposed to the saints -- come marching in.     
§
John Lewis spoke for many of us -- a majority of voters, anyway -- when he said the other day that "I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president."   
Trump, true to form, attacked the beloved civil rights icon for his act of patriotism, or at least exercise of free speech, in a series of tweets bordering on hysteria from Trump Tower, where he is lurking with his loyalist cadre while creating the veneer of accessibility.  Trump enters office with less popular support of any new president in modern times and seems intent on continuing, if not deepening, the polarization of the election.  More insults but no healing for The Donald. 
The irony of the fact that Lewis was getting his head split open by baton-wielding cops during civil rights marches while Vietnam draft-deferred Trump was playing squash at Fordham and gearing up for a lifetime of lechery and shady business practices, as well as discriminating against people of Lewis's persuasion, was lost on no one except that minority of voters like your crazy brother-in-law who think Cheeto Jesus is going to Make America Great Again even if it isn't broken.   
Yet.   
§
The evidence against Trump's legitimacy has gone from persuasive to overwhelming. 
The Russian intervention, which Trump has kind of sort of finally acknowledged may have happened after days of blistering jeremiads against the U.S. intelligence community he will now lead, at the least deeply tainted the election.   But it was FBI Director James Comey's delegitimizing conduct that stole it from Hillary Clinton, and as erratic as public-opinion polling was during the campaign, post-election polling shows a convincing and marked drop-off in her support after a Comey blast a mere 11 days before balloting. 
I come slowly to accepting conspiracies, but I cannot escape the feeling that there is a seriously creepy backstory to Comey believing it was appropriate to make repeated disclosures during the campaign about the investigation into Clinton's emails but he still refuses to say if the FBI is investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia. 
The Justice Department inspector general's investigation into Comey's conduct will go nowhere, as likely will the congressional probes into Russia's interference.  But there is a possible upside to this grotesquery: Trump craves nothing more than respect, but he is not going to get it so long as he makes up his own rules and doesn't care what anyone else thinks, and that may end up helping to limit his power while making somewhat easier the task of Republicans to impeach him when the skeletons pile so high atop his scorched earth style of governance that you won't be able see the flag flying over the Capitol dome.   
John Lewis will not be attending the inauguration.  Neither will I.  Barack Obama did much to restore my faith in the power of government to do good, but a peculiar consequence of the turmoil of the past several weeks is that I now respect the office of president more than ever, although this does not mean that I have to respect the man. And I will not respect President Trump. 

Cartoon du Jour

MATT DAVIES/NEWSDAY

Sunday, January 15, 2017

If Dr. King Looked Beyond The Grave Today, He Would Be Bitterly Disappointed

MATT DAVIES / NEWSDAY
(PORTIONS OF THIS POST, ADJUSTED FOR THE CURRENT REALITY,
 HAVE APPEARED ON EVERY MLK DAY FOR YEARS.) 
When I was first cutting my teeth in the newspaper business, my editors sent me out on "house ends," visits to homes where I would interview families of interest because something very bad of interest had happened to them.
It was the late 1960s and many of these house ends were the result of the death of a young man in Vietnam, usually an Army or Marine Corps infantryman who had been drafted or given the choice between prison or the military by a judge. Most of these young men were African-Americans and virtually all were from poor families.
After a while, these visits took on a certain surreal sameness.
Although I once found myself in the horribly awkward position of having arrived before the uniformed bearer of the bad-news telegram, I always was welcomed into these humble homes.  I always was treated with respect.  These were good people and they knew that I would give their now departed son or brother a respectful sendoff in the next day's newspaper.
The living rooms always were modest and always had a photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a place of honor, often the same color rotogravure portrait scissored from an old Sunday Philadelphia Bulletin magazine.
I have no idea how many times I sat on a lumpy couch, ballpoint pen and spiral-bound A6 reporter's notebook in one hand, a snapshot of the victim in the other, with the wizened Dr. King looking down on me as I listened to the story of a young life snuffed out by a war that none of us understood, few supported and Dr. King adamantly opposed because he understood, as few others did, that there was a common link between the civil rights and peace movements.
I do know that too many of these young men perished because of a lethal one-two punch -- their skin color and economic status. They were not white and did not have have college deferments, as did a Dick Cheney, or a daddy with friends in high places, as did a George W. Bush.  Or a son of privilege eager to invent draft-deferring physical ailments like Donald Trump.
§
It was the spring of 1968 and I had taken a week off from the house-end grind to join college friends in Daytona Beach, Florida. Our sunburns had not yet turned to tans and we had barely finished the first of several cases of Old Milwaukee beer (with pull tops, a recent innovation) when President Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term. The Vietnam War had worn him down -- and out. 
And then four evenings later there was a commotion. 
"They killed the nigger! The nigger's dead!" cried a group of drunken college students from Tennessee as they danced and whooped in the parking lot of the motel adjacent to ours. "They killed the nigger!" 
My Old Milwaukee high evaporated in a flash. We turned on the television. Dr. King had been gunned down at a Memphis motel. I wanted to hurt those students. I wanted to throw up. 
We drove north the next morning. As we approached Washington, there were huge black clouds of smoke over the city. We overtook a convoy of troop carriers filled with National Guardsmen, rifles slung over their shoulders. The riots following Dr. King's murder were well underway, and the New York Avenue corridor of tenements, flophouses, liquor stores and churches in Northwest Washington was in flames. 
The rioting spread, and the next night. I was again in newspaper reporter's mufti and took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware where young blacks were skirmishing with the city police and National Guard. There were fires and intermittent gunfire from snipers atop the row houses. At one point a bullet whizzed over my head. Yes, just like in the movies. 
I was still shaking when I got back to my apartment the next morning. I cried over the inhumanity of my fellow man, for my black friends and for Dr. King.
§
My tears came honestly. 
My mother's father was a German Jewish immigrant who worked tirelessly for civil rights and went out of his way to hire blacks at his department store for jobs that did not involve dustpans and mops.  He took his oath of citizenship so seriously that he paid a printer to publish a pocket-sized booklet with the Bill of Rights, an American flag on the cover, which he distributed to high school civics classes. 
My parents took up the civil-rights mantle, and to use the parlance of the time, some of their best friends were Negroes.  My father was the campaign manager for the first black elected to the local school board.  That and my parents' habit of inviting black friends to swim in our backyard pool alienated them from some of their white "friends;" one neighbor forbade her children from playing with my brother and sister and I. 
We went on bus trips to Washington for the big civil rights and antiwar protest marches.  My father, never a religious man, found the experience of bearing witness on the Mall with several hundred thousand other people to be deeply spiritual. 
Like me, they were heartened by the sea change in civil rights in the 1960s and 70s that Dr. King and his acolytes worked for so tirelessly.  But they believed until the day they drew their last breaths that America remained a deeply racist society, perhaps just not as overtly so, and that much work remained to be done. 
§
If Dr. King were to look beyond the grave today he surely would be bitterly disappointed.  Although he would be cheered by the advances in civil rights, and there have been many, he certainly would wonder if the progress he and his brothers and sisters bled and gave their lives for is being reversed even after eight years of an African-American president.
One bright spot -- and there are too few -- is the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a logical contemporary successor to Dr. King's crusade.  It is fair to say that a Chicago police officer would not be charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald, as well as the resolution of other high-profile cases where there has been a semblance of justice -- even if it has been justice delayed -- without the consciousness raising of the movement.
Barack Obama has pretty much avoided addressing racism head on during his presidency, and that's okay with me.  The lives of black Americans have improved during his two terms because of his trademark quiet determination, not fire and brimstone, while I find offensive the notion that just because he's black things would or should automatically be better.  It's going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism. 
That racism is so deeply rooted in our culture that beasts like President-Elect Trump, who received endorsements from white supremacist groups, and that was just fine with him, have put down their dog whistles with relative impunity and delivered blatantly anti-minority messages.  In fact, one of the greatest lessons not learned in the 2016 campaign by that feckless news media was that while it would treat Trump's outrageous behavior as disqualifying, his supporters believed otherwise.  This is not to say that many of these supporters voted for The Donald although he was a bigot and racist, which is another post-election media delusionment.  They voted for him precisely because he was.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become America's biggest hate group with the first black president its chief target.  Which begs a question: Is it Obama's fault that the U.S. is not more openly intolerant?  Of course not.  Many Americans, and were not just talking garden-variety racists here,  were not ready for a transformational leader like Dr. King, let alone a transformational president. 
Republicans represent the They're Agin' Us view when they claim that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be "appalled" by the Black Lives Matter movement's focus on the skin color of the people who are disproportionately killed in encounters with the police.  
Besides being patently false, this argument betrays an indifference to black suffering and an ignorance of the history the civil rights movement, which from its infancy focused on bringing an end to violence against African-Americans.  Lest we forget, as so many people conveniently have, Dr. King's goal was to force the White House and Congress to confront the fact that African-Americans were being killed with impunity for "offenses" like trying to vote and for equal protection under the law. 
The views of Republicans, beginning with but not confined to Trump, are pathetic in historic and contemporary contexts, but then they are merely standing at a figurative schoolhouse door like George Wallace did.

Recalling Friends From Back In The Day -- When There Was A Day To Be Back In

Stew at the helm of Ralph Hicks's Alsager off Antigua 
Back in the day, the social if not exactly the cultural hub of Newark, Delaware was the Townie Bar at the Deer Park Tavern.   
Back in the day -- that is, when there was a day to be back in -- Newark was a quaint college town with but three places to buy a drink.  One of them was the Deer Park Tavern, which Edgar Allan Poe is said to have cursed when he got falling-down drunk following a lecture at the then mens-only Delaware College and was thrown out onto Main Street.  
The Deer Park back in the day    
There was nothing new about the Deer Park back in the day -- we're talking early 1970s -- except fresh coats of shockingly white paint on the Townie and College Bar ceilings every year or so after they would turn a bilious yellow from cigarette smoke. 
The Townie Bar underwent a metamorphosis from daytime to nighttime as most of the old timers moved on and the dirt and decay, as well as the bright glow of the neon beer signs, disappeared behind thick clouds of cigarette smoke.  The two constants no matter the hour were the smell of cigarettes and beer and the likely presence of Bob "Stew" Stewart and Jim "Muggs" McGinnis, who while not passionate about having to toil as house painters, reveled in storytelling, drinking shots and beers (usually "black and tans" drawn half and half from kegs of dark and light bargain-basement lagers and chased with rye whiskey), as well as clobbering all comers as members of the Deer Park's eclectic and occasionally phenomenal softball teams.   
Stew and Muggs were remembered at a celebration on January 15 at the Blue Crab Grill in Newark.  

Muggs 
Stew died on November 30 at age 69 while Muggs left this mortal coil on December 3.  He would have been 73 this month.  Back in the day and for a few years before moving on, Stew and Muggs painted houses in Newark and Wilmington, or anywhere there was a buck to be made.  
For Stew, that was sailing yachts from New England to Florida or the Caribbean in the fall and then back again in the spring when he was not painting houses, and later working as a plumber.   
For Muggs, that was indulging his passion for opera and fine literature when he was not painting houses, and later working as a water engineer and full-time father when the mother of his children died.  
Stew grew up in Nottingham Green off West Main Street in Newark and was a graduate of Newark High School.  He is survived by two daughters, a granddaughter and three brothers.  Muggs grew up in Wilmington and was a Salesianum School grad, where he had been a quarterback on some of Dim Montero's legendary football teams.  He got a full ride to the University of Delaware, blew out a knee but stayed on and graduated.  He is survived by a son and daughter, two brothers and two sisters.  
One of the eclectic softball teams. (Muggs is third from upper right)
As the names implied, the Townie Bar was for locals and College Bar was for university students. This segregation was not enforced, but we looked down our noses at the mob of students who stood three and four deep around their bar on most nights, especially Thursdays. 
Even though they were only a few years younger than us, we believed ourselves to be worldly wise while they were naifs. We were ready for anything, or so we thought, because we had gone out into the world and had its measure.  Or at least had begun to figure it out.  Some of us had survived Vietnam and some of us were working at the Chrysler assembly plant and in shipyards and factories. A few were even teaching those students, who we believed had no time for anything beyond slamming down drafts and doing shots of tequila.  
Back in the day, the Deer Park was a retreat from that all too real world and a great equalizer where a pipe fitter could hoist a pint with a PhD.  For the students looking through the door into our smoky lair, Stew, Muggs and the rest of us must have seemed terribly grown up.  I suppose we were.

-- SHAUN D. MULLEN 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winter In America: 'Ain’t Nobody Fighting Cause Nobody Knows What To Say'

 WINTER IN AMERICA
By GIL SCOTT-HERON 
Uh from the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims  
And to the buffalos who once ruled the plains  
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds looking for the rain  
Looking for the rain Just like the cities stagger on the coastline  
In a nation that just can’t stand much more  
Like the forest buried beneath the highway, never had a chance to grow  
Never had a chance to grow And now it’s winter, winter in America  
Yes now that all of the killers have been killed, sent away,   
Yeah  
But the people know, the people know, it’s winter Winter in America  
And ain’t nobody fighting cause  
Nobody knows what to say  
Save your soul, lord knows from Winter in America  
The constitution, a noble piece of paper  
With free society, a struggle but they died in vain  
And now democracy is a ragtime on the corner  
Hoping for some rain  
It looks like he’s hoping, hoping for some rain  
And I see the robins perched in barren treetops  
Watching lasting racists marching across the floor  
Just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams  
Never had a chance to grow  
Never had a chance to grow  
And now it’s winter  
Winter in America  
Yes now that all of the killers have been killed, or betrayed,  
Yeah  
But the people know, the people know, it’s winter  
Lord knows it’s winter in America  
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say  
Save your soul  
From a winter in America  
Stick  
And now it’s winter Winter in America  
And now that all of the killers done been killed, sent away  
The people know, the people know, it’s winter Winter in America  
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say  
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows nobody knows  
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say 

Make no mistake about it, GIL SCOTT-HERON (1949-2011) is the true father of rap music, but aside from his oft-quoted poem-song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," this brilliant spoken word performer labored in relative obscurity during his too short life. Gil called himself a”bluesologist,” and the stories he told in his fusion of jazz, blues and soul were eerily prescient.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

President Obama's Legacy: 'For Eight Years He Walked On Ice And Never Fell'

PETE SOUZA / THE WHITE HOUSE
There has been much gum flapping over whether President Barack Hussein Obama's legacy will be undermined by his successor, for whom Pretend Time will soon come to a crashing end with his inauguration.   There indeed have been occasions over the last eight years when the hope-and-change mantra that propelled Obama to the presidency has seemed like a fiction, and the election of Donald Trump would seem to verify that in an especially cruel way.   
Yet despite taking the reins of a war-weary nation in the midst of an economic calamity and having to endure the unrelenting enmity of an obdurate opposition party and the stench of racism, which had been lurking in its hidey-hole until bursting forth newly triumphant with Trump's ascendency, Obama has wrought enormous changes during what has been the most transformational presidency in 80 years. 
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "For eight years he walked on ice and never fell."   
Obama turned out not only to be so much more than many of us give him credit for, he happened to have done the most difficult job in the world with acuity, wisdom and wit while weathering vicious personal attacks as the man who broke the 220-year White House monopoly on whiteness.  And somewhat ironically, the right-wing Republican hate machine made him a better president.    
Obama has:  
* Implemented far-reaching and, yes, lasting reforms in a dysfunctional health-care system. 
* Stopped the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression. 
* Raised school academic standards. 
* Legislated pay parity for women. 
* Revolutionized the way we produce energy through harnessing renewable resources. 
* Fought back against global warming. 
* Protected over 550 million acres of federal lands and waters from exploitation. 
* Taken on the epidemic of childhood obesity with his First Lady. 
* Revitalized the Justice Department, which has vigorously investigated police brutality. 
* Appointed the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court.
* Provided deportation relief to young immigrants.   
* Legalized same-sex marriage and opened new opportunities for women and gays in the military. 
* Saved the domestic auto industry. 
* Added 15 million jobs through 75 consecutive month of growth. 
* Reduced unemployment to below 5 percent and the federal deficit by two thirds. 
* Engineered egalitarian tax reforms and eliminated the most usurious of credit card abuses. 
* Took out Obama bin Laden. 
* Normalized relations with Cuba and stabilized relations with Iran. 
* Resurrected America's dismal image in the world. 
And unlike his predecessors, Obama has served without scandal once you discount the innumerable faux outrages ginned up by Republicans.
DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Had the Supreme Court not stolen the 2000 election, Barack Obama would not have become the 44th president of the United States.  Things would have been very different had the smirking frat boy from the Texas oil patch not been so spectacularly inept, had the economy not belly flopped, and had the relatively inexperienced senator from Illinois not run on a message that galvanized an electorate desperate to turn America back from the dark side.   
That a sizable portion of that electorate has opted for a return to the dark side with Donald Trump is less a reflection of Obama's tenure than the latent stupidity of Americans in general.  What is happening to America is a kind of entropy, a gradual decline into disorder.  Trump is merely a symptom, not the disease, although it is certain that the case of presidential buyer's remorse that will begin unfolding in the coming weeks and months will be unlike anything ever seen in American history.   
Still, there have been setbacks, as well as outright failures, on Obama's watch.   
Obama has:  
* Played much too nice with Republicans and a deeply dysfunctional Congress.   
* Chose many of the same insiders for the most important administration fiscal posts who helped sew the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse. 
* Failed to act on marijuana reform or push back sufficiently against the War on Drugs. 
* Failed to keep his pledge to shut the revolving door to lobbyists. 
* Allowed mass surveillance of Americans to grow. 
* Done too little too late to push back against Vladimir Putin's efforts to throw the 2016 election.
Obama also has not been particularly effective in using the presidential bully pulpit to allay fears of terrorism, which has inadvertently made the Republican blowhard brigade seem stronger when they rail about foreign policy.  His Mideast policy, especially as it has pertained to Syria, was been a hash, while he has repeatedly wavered on human rights in Egypt and Turkey, among other countries. 
Most importantly for me, he issued go-free cards to Bush administration torture regime perpetrators.  His rationale in not ordering the Justice Department to investigate these evildoers is understandable if disheartening: He did not want to begin his presidency with Republicans screaming blue-blooded murder over what they would view as political prosecutions, although they screamed anyway about practically everything else.  And yes, Gitmo is still in business.

Yet Obama has been clever in the face of obstructionist Republicans even if it sometimes seems he has been content with a half a loaf when a whole loaf was needed.  He made recess appointments with some success and took unilateral executive action on gun control.  He has understood that sweeping reform of environmental regulations is impossible because of the Republicans' big energy-fossil fuel mindset, so he has worked within existing regulations and fairly effectively at that. 
Charges that Obama has let down African-Americans while not adequately advocating against racism are rubbish, although First Lady Michelle Obama certainly has been more outspoken.  There also is the reality that like Bill and Hillary Clinton, some of the criticism of him has merely been because he is a Democrat. 
Obama remains a potent symbol for African-Americans.  Their lives have improved during his two terms because of his trademark quiet determination, not fire and brimstone, while I find offensive the notion that just because he's black things would or should automatically have gotten better.  Obama fought powerful racist headwinds and it's going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism as the election of a proto-birther whose only talents are making money and white bluster has so painfully reminded us.  
EPA
Barack Obama's style has been as important as his substance: His determinedly placid temperament has enabled him to keep his head when others lose theirs, most notably at the height of the recession he inherited and in the Ebola outbreak crisis, but in many other instances, as well.  He has disdained the theatrical and possesses a calculated coolness that at times can be infuriating but became a personal trademark as the challenges -- and the Republican insults and dirty tricks -- piled up and his hair turned gray.  And when was the last time the leader of the free world danced to Drake's "Hotline Bling"? 
Obama has had a gifted ability to engage when he speaks -- that is if you are inclined to listen in the first place. And you'd darned well better listen when the subject is complicated and his explanation is complex, which it sometimes is because of a tendency to slip into policy wonkery.  George Bush invariably talked down to and tried to frighten us, as will Trump, while Obama has talked with us, appealing to our better nature and resilience as a nation as he did yet again in his farewell valedictory on Tuesday night.  (Or perhaps was it not really farewell?) 
And where Bush was a dismal speechmaker, Obama has been inspirational
There was his 2008 "More Perfect Unionspeech on race in which he renounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright's beliefs while embracing his faith.  His 2011 memorial speech speech for Christina Taylor Green and the other Tucson shooting victims.  Then there was the extraordinary eulogy last June during which he sang "Amazing Grace" for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was among nine people slain during a church Bible study by a self-avowed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina.
PETE SOUZA / THE WHITE HOUSE
Yes, Barack Obama has outstanding oratorical chops.  But let's recall that his opponents in 2008 said that was all he had, and John McCain went so far as to label him a "celebrity" in one of the more memorable insults of the campaign.   History will be particularly kind to Obama, and while Republicans are working feverishly to undo the Affordable Care Act, his signal accomplishment, this transformation of health care in America has touched every nook and cranny of the system and has a momentum that will be impossible to stop.   
My favorite photograph of the last eight years is not of Obama crossing the Freedom Bridge is Selma, dancing with Michelle at one of his inaugural balls or greeting troops in Afghanistan.  It is that little black boy touching his hair.   
Underlying Obama's accomplishments, as well as his failures, is a humility that all great men possessEverything bitter conservatives and disillusioned liberals said he was he has not been, and everything they said he could not be he has been. 
But most of all, Barack Obama has been one of the greatest of presidents because he has been a deeply decent and moral human being at a time when those qualities are becoming extinct.