Tradition topped tension at former President George H.W. Bush‘s state funeral on Wednesday when former presidential couples, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama, sat next to President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the National Cathedral.
Next to the Clintons sat Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn, reflecting the office-holding chronological order of the five living presidents. (Bush’s oldest son, former President George W. Bush, was seated in the first row on the opposite side of the aisle alongside wife Laura, his siblings and their spouses.)
Behind the former presidents sat Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen, who were accompanied in the same row by former vice presidents Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden alongside their wives Marilyn, Lynne and Jill, respectively.
President Trump and wife Melania greeted the Obamas with handshakes upon arrival, but did not appear to immediately acknowledge the Clintons.
While the seating arrangements are in keeping with historical precedence, the criticism President Trump has received from his predecessors has given greater significance to the presidential lineup.
“He mentioned having Trump at his funeral because it is protocol and George had deep respect for the office of the presidency — so he would have it no other way,” Quayle previously told PEOPLE, recalling a recent conversation with Bush before his death.
The 41st president died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94.
The decision to have President Trump at his funeral reflects Bush’s strong sense of duty, since the former businessman has disparaged the Bush family for years — so much so that Bush’s late wife, Barbara Bush, didn’t want the president at her funeral. (She died in April, just a short eight months before her beloved husband of more than 70 years).
“The mean Twitters and the name-calling — Bush found that gauche and that is why Barbara Bush did not want Trump at her funeral,” presidential historian and family friend Douglas Brinkley told PEOPLE.
The Clintons and Obamas have also had fraught relations with Trump. From the 2016 presidential campaign in which Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton with promises to “lock her up,” and years of stoking the false birther conspiracy by questioning Obama’s citizenship, to his dangerous tweets about nuclear war and push to deny asylum seekers, the Clintons and Obamas have had numerous reasons to push back against the current president.
“We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them,” former President Obama said after Trump failed to fully condemn the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, according to The Hill. “We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers.”
This is just one of a number of issues in which Obama has been critical of President Trump. And in September, Mrs. Clinton summarized her own feelings about the current administration with an essay for The Atlantic titled, “American Democracy Is In Crisis.”
Their desire to honor the former president is evident in the statements given following Bush’s death. Mrs. Obama wrote on Instagram that Bush “was an extraordinary example for us all.”
On Dec. 1, former secretary of state Mrs. Clinton wrote, “I always valued his desire to listen, look at evidence & ask for ideas, even from people w/ different beliefs. My heart goes out to the entire Bush family.”
George H.W. Bush was a beloved father & grandfather, a war hero, a public servant, & a class act. In my experiences w/ him, I always valued his desire to listen, look at evidence & ask for ideas, even from people w/ different beliefs. My heart goes out to the entire Bush family.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) December 1, 2018
The presidential seating arrangements are in keeping with a longtime tradition. At former President Ronald Reagan‘s funeral in 2004 and former President Gerald Ford‘s in 2007, the living presidents and first ladies in attendance sat in two rows. While the seating arrangement at Reagan’s service also reflected the order of the administrations, Ford’s did not.
It is also tradition for the current president to attend.
Susan Page, USA Today‘s Washington bureau chief who is writing a biography of Barbara Bush, told PEOPLE that the move to welcome Trump is to be expected.
“Yes, the modern tradition is that sitting presidents attend the funerals of past presidents,” she said.
President Trump tweeted out his respects for Bush in the days following the 41st president’s death.
“President George H.W. Bush led a long, successful and beautiful life,” Trump wrote last Saturday. “Whenever I was with him I saw his absolute joy for life and true pride in his family. His accomplishments were great from beginning to end. He was a truly wonderful man and will be missed by all!”
On Monday, the president added, “Looking forward to being with the Bush Family to pay my respects to President George H.W. Bush.”
President George H.W. Bush led a long, successful and beautiful life. Whenever I was with him I saw his absolute joy for life and true pride in his family. His accomplishments were great from beginning to end. He was a truly wonderful man and will be missed by all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2018
Looking forward to being with the Bush Family to pay my respects to President George H.W. Bush.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
“Through his essential authenticity, disarming wit, and unwavering commitment to faith, family, and country, President Bush inspired generations of his fellow Americans to public service — to be, in his words, ‘a thousand points of light’ illuminating the greatness, hope, and opportunity of America to the world,” the statement said.