Interrupting his holiday for the second day running, Mr Clinton was addressing a meeting of mainly black liberals, held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King's civil rights march. The group was at a church on the island of Martha's Vineyard, where the Clinton family are nearing the end of their holiday.
In a 20-minute speech that bristled with allusions to his own situation and his televised admission of a "not appropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Mr Clinton spoke of his personal and political debt to the American civil rights movement and also recalled a meeting with the South African President, Nelson Mandela. He said he had asked Mr Mandela about his ability to forgive his prison guards. At first, Mr Mandela had admitted, it was difficult, but it became easier.
"Having become," Mr Clinton said to understanding laughter, "quite an expert in the business of asking forgiveness, I can tell you that it gets a little easier the more you do it."
And he listed the host of people someone in his position had to ask forgiveness of: "My family, my party, the Congress" etc.
In what appeared to be an attempt to distance himself from his much-criticised attack on the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, Mr Clinton said that he had also learnt from the civil rights movement that "in order to get forgiveness, you've got to be willing to give it... We have to be able to forgive those we believe have wronged us." Not doing so, he said, makes people "harden their heart and leads to self-inflicted wounds".
The Southern revivalist atmosphere of the meeting, marking an occasion that was immortalised by Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." speech, suited the President, who is known - thanks to his Southern upbringing - to feel more at home with American blacks than do many white Americans.
The quasi-religious event, which included gospel singing, was also appropriate to the personal subtext of contrition in Mr Clinton's address.
His appearance at the meeting, announced less than 24 hours in advance, appeared to reflect a compromise between the views of his political advisers, who have been open in wanting Mr Clinton to apologise more profusely for his affair, and his lawyer and his wife, who were reported to favour silence.
Among the leading members of the black intelligentsia who attended the meeting was Anita Hill, the university professor who gained national renown for contesting the appointment to the Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas, whom she alleged to have sexually harassed her.
Ms Hill's presence signalled the constancy of American blacks, and American women for Mr Clinton, despite his admission of an affair with a junior employee.Reuse content