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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Trust, the most valued and valuable quality

President Barack Obama answers questions about the Iran

President Barack Obama answers questions about the Iran nuclear deal during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Credit: AP

My grandson looks at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. It doesn't matter what the question is. He's 4 years old, and trusts implicitly whatever I say. I hope never to lose that.

I've been thinking a lot about trust. The most recent spur was the nuclear arms deal with Iran and the radioactive fallout over whether that country will adhere to the agreement. Don't trust them. Trust but verify. Don't trust and verify. Don't ever under any circumstance at any point of any day anytime anywhere trust them. And on it goes.

Trust also is emerging as a major theme of the 2016 presidential campaign, with one Republican after another lambasting Democrat Hillary Clinton's supposed lack of trustworthiness as reflected in polling. The irony is rich, given her TV commercial during the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama that essentially asked viewers whom they trusted more to answer the phone at 3 a.m. with the nation's security in the balance.

Whatever your views, it's clear that to most of us, trust matters. Intensely. It always has. It's the most valuable currency in politics -- and in everyday life.

We trust doctors with our health, mechanics with our cars, teachers and coaches and baby sitters with our children, investment advisers with our money, the driver in the next lane with our lives.

We hold dear the axiom that a person is as good as his or her word. In sports and the military, trusting one's peers is revered. It's no accident the first words of the Boy Scout Law are: A Scout is trustworthy.

Some 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Confucius laid out three things all rulers need: weapons, food and trust. And the one no ruler could do without, he said, was trust: "Without trust we cannot stand."

And yet, trust in the public sphere is ever harder to find in an era of National Security Agency spying, stunning bureaucratic incompetence, rampant corruption and political flip-flopping. Yes, elected officials and candidates have every right to change their minds as they mature -- nowadays they say their thinking has "evolved" -- but not overnight and not only when it's finally safe.

This erosion of trust in government has been gradual but continuous since Watergate exploded in 1972. Now, a mere 13 percent of Americans say they trust government to do the right thing all or most of the time (big business fares scarcely better, at 17 percent).

Our leaders shun the advice offered by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer and minister whose fantasy novels inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle, among others. "To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved," MacDonald said.

But our politicians keep opting for love -- that is, popularity.

Whether the violation of trust is saying one thing but doing another, performing inappropriate favors for one's family and friends, or getting caught with one's own hand in the public coffers, the consequences are corrosive.

We learn to be not merely skeptical, but to distrust. A skeptic probes and questions. That's healthy. But distrust is hostile and unhealthy, and it means something has gone awry.

Some of today's distrust is purely political, true. But much is hard-earned and real. When you evaluate a candidate, do you find it sufficient enough to analyze policy proposals? Or do you find yourself asking: Is this a person I can trust?

I know what my grandson's answer is about me. And I'm working hard to keep his trust.

I wish all of our leaders treated all of us the same way. Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.