WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was heartwarming, in a way, to see Sen. John McCain and President-elect Barack Obama together the other day.
Sure, the photo op was a tad uncomfortable: The men looked like wary heads-of-state waiting for their translators.
As the cameras captured every uncomfortable moment, the two men tried some football chit-chat, but it looked forced -- because it was.
Behind closed doors, the discussion was more real.
A close aide to McCain told me that the senator really didn't know what to expect when he went into the session, but he knew he was ready to tell Obama where he could help him. He related that, after a couple of days of unwinding at his Sedona, Arizona, retreat, the senator was "back to plotting" what he can do in the Senate with his best-pal, Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.
"He'll be OK," the adviser says. "That's just who he is." Watch more on the meeting »
As for Obama, he had a clear agenda. We've heard a lot lately about Obama's interest in Abe Lincoln's "team of rivals" in his Cabinet. He's not about to go that far with the man he beat for the presidency, but he also knows that McCain will be a very useful ally. iReport.com: Who would you put in Obama's cabinet?
One clear, and pressing, issue: the closing of Guantanamo. McCain is one of a small number of Republicans who agree with Obama that it ought to be closed. Obama can (and might) do this by executive order, but it's not as if that's the end of it. Questions remain about how to handle the detainees, and who would be better in handling that thorny issue than John McCain?
If Obama needs political cover -- and credibility -- on Gitmo, McCain is his man.
Likewise, McCain can also be incredibly useful to the new president on issues of climate change, defense procurement, earmarks and corporate welfare. He's not a fellow who can possibly care anymore about angering members of the Republican Party. He's already been there and done that. It's now time for McCain to burnish the legacy, and his place in the Senate could do just that.
It's no coincidence, by the way, that Obama sat down with McCain so quickly after the election. He knows he will need him.
The same goes for Sen. Joe Lieberman, the renegade independent (once a Democrat) who endorsed McCain -- and said some nasty things about Obama at the GOP convention.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other angry Democrats were ready to toss him overboard, taking away his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. Then came a phone call from Obama to Reid, cautioning him not to do anything that would drive Lieberman into the arms of the Republican caucus.
The result: Lieberman remains chairman, and loses some other, more minor, posts. Without Obama, he probably would have been dethroned entirely.
Then, of course, there's the overture Obama made to Sen. Hillary Clinton about becoming secretary of state. Needless to say, there's not a warm and fuzzy history there.
But Obama understands this is not just about him -- it's about uniting a party, putting a best face on America to the world and, maybe most of all, bringing the Clintons into his tent. It's an idea that comes from a leader dealing from strength, not weakness.
In fact, if Obama had chosen Clinton as his running mate, that would have been a choice made out of weakness.
And that's not where he's dealing from right now.