Looking sorrowful, at times almost haggard, but always dignified, Mr Clinton paid tribute to the dead, many of whom were young, as "a portrait of America today and of America's tomorrow".
Pledging that "no matter what it takes, we must find those responsible for these evil acts and ensure that justice is done", he told the mourners and the worldwide television audience. "America will not retreat from the world and all its promise, nor shrink from our responsibility to stand against terror and with the friends of freedom everywhere". In the light of Kenyan criticism, Mr Clinton judiciously paid equal tribute early in his oration to the Kenyans and Tanzanians who were also killed.
Mr Clinton was accompanied by his wife, Hillary, and members of the Administration. Tears flowed as they watched 10 coffins, draped in the Stars and Stripes, being unloaded from the plane that had brought them from Germany, and borne each to its own hearse at the edge of an aircraft hangar.
There were hearses also for the two bodies not repatriated with the rest: one, married to a Kenyan, was to be buried in Kenya. The other was repatriated early at the request of her family.
Yesterday's ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, combined the ad hoc and serviceable elements of a military base with the measured ceremonial and high-flown rhetoric of a national tribute.
The Defence Secretary, William Cohen, spoke first and paid tribute to the dead as among those who "serve on the frontline of democracy". The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, dressed in black like Mrs Clinton, looked exhausted after her 24-hour transatlantic journey to escort home the bodies, but talked tough. Terrorism, she said, is not a form of political expression. "It is certainly not a manifestation of religious faith. It is murder, plain and simple."
Before the 45-minute ceremony, Mr Clinton met family and friends of the dead privately, spending more than five minutes with each.
The tears and theatre of national mourning diverted attention, if only temporarily, from two simmering diplomatic controversies. The previous evening, the US ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, who was slightly injured in the bombing, disclosed that she had twice in the past year requested a new embassy building in Nairobi for security reasons.
Both requests had been rejected on cost grounds. First in December, then in a direct communication to Madeleine Albright in May, Ms Bushnell "indicated that resource constraints were endangering embassy personnel", the State Department's assistant secretary for administration, Patrick Kennedy, told reporters.
With his voice cracking with emotion, Mr Kennedy said: "Unfortunately, we simply lack the money to respond immediately to all the needs of embassy construction."
Then he dropped the diplomatic language and went on: "Look, I've been a foreign service officer for 25 years. And if anybody thinks that everyone in this department isn't sick about this, they're just wrong. We did the very best we could, given what we had."
He and other senior State Department officials stressed that embassies were graded in terms of their assessed risk factor, and neither Nairobi nor the other embassy bombed, in Dar es Salaam, were deemed high-risk posts.
Ms Bushnell herself went on Kenyan television on Wednesday night to express American sympathy for Kenya's losses - 20 Kenyans were killed for every American - and try to defuse perceptions in Nairobi that Americans had been more interested in helping their own and protecting their embassy than saving Kenyans.
"We were shedding blood. Blood is blood," she said. "We were rescuing people. People are people. There was no determination as to race, religion, ethnic group. We were trying to get as many out as we possibly could."Reuse content