President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, a couple of Baptists, sat near the two George Bushes, the elder an Episcopalian, the younger a Methodist. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Catholic, was a row behind first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Methodist herself.
Some of those present had differed with O'Connor's strong opposition to abortion or his views on other issues. But differences disappeared Monday in a turnout by the Washington and New York political elite that seemed almost like a state funeral.
Those attending the funeral Mass for O'Connor, who died Wednesday, also included New York Gov. George Pataki, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and nearly 40% of the Senate.
"The Catholic vote is one of the largest, if not one of the most important, swing votes today," said Raymond Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, one of the 3,500 invited guests.
As for politicians attending, he said, "Just to be associated with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is one way to ingratiate yourself with the Catholic people across the country."
For Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, rivals for a New York Senate seat, and for Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, that's crucial.
Bush's father, former President Bush, sat with O'Connor's family across the aisle from the Clintons. The younger Bush had offended some Catholics earlier in the year by speaking at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school whose leader has espoused anti-Catholic views.
Standing beside his wife, George W. Bush said upon arriving at LaGuardia Airport: "Laura and I are honored to be here to say our prayers on behalf of this man. He's a man who stood for the disadvantaged and the impoverished, and he was a strong voice for life in America."
"He was a friend," said Gore, speaking after The Associated Press annual meeting, also in New York Monday. He pointed in particular to O'Connor's support of Tipper Gore's campaign to persuade music companies to include parental advisories on CD covers.
The Rev. John Langan, professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University, said the funeral was a chance for politicians to show both their respect for the cardinal and their interest in the Catholic vote.
"I think that it's, in a sense, the whole package," he said.
Bush, said John Kenneth White, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America, had to be there.
"This is part of saying this is the real me, not the person who was there at Bob Jones," White said.
At a time when American Catholics are increasingly inclined to go their own way on matters of faith and morals, O'Connor staunchly championed the Vatican line against birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.
From the pulpit, O'Connor also weighed in on local and national political matters.
He battled with prominent Catholic abortion-rights supporters, most notably former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Though none of the visiting politicians were allowed to speak at Monday's service, Flynn, the former Boston mayor, said O'Connor would never have missed the chance to address such an assembly of political power.
"I would love to hear that one," Flynn said. "I wish he were back for one more day."