Before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of hundreds at Faneuil Hall yesterday, US Senator John F. Kerry exhorted Americans to speak out against the war in Iraq, declaring that troops are dying because of what he called an inept and deceitful policy orchestrated by the Bush administration.
It was the 35th anniversary of the day Kerry, as a young Navy veteran returning from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously asking, ''How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Kerry's case yesterday was much the same: that Americans have a duty to speak out against a war that is sacrificing lives on the ''altar of stubborn pride."
''Presidents and politicians may worry about losing face or losing votes or losing their legacy; it is time to think about young Americans and innocent civilians who are losing their lives," Kerry said, to a thunderous standing ovation.
His speech, back on home turf, was billed by aides as a major address on the importance of dissent during wartime.
Jabbing his thumb in the air and sweeping his hands across the lectern, Kerry could barely complete three sentences without being interrupted by applause. Standing beneath oil portraits of Samuel Adams, George Washington, and John Quincy Adams, Kerry invoked history, from Congress's attempts in 1798 to silence Thomas Jefferson to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade against communism in the 1950s.
''The bedrock of America's greatest advances -- the foundation of what we know today are defining values -- was formed not by cheering things on as they were, but by taking them on and demanding change," Kerry said, again to applause.
Matt Wylie, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, dismissed Kerry's criticism.
''John Kerry has been acting bizarrely ever since he lost the election for president," Wylie said yesterday. ''Today's speech is another strange step in that direction. There has never been a time in our nation's history when so many people freely gave dissenting opinions about the nation's policies from both ends of the political spectrum. John Kerry should hop on the Internet, and he'll see there is a dialogue about all the positions going on in America today."
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee also took issue with Kerry's remarks. ''While we have never questioned Democrats' patriotism, we do question John Kerry's motives, considering his eagerness to engage in political theatrics as he ponders a presidential run," said Tracey Schmitt.
After the speech, Kerry, in a crush of reporters, waved off questions about whether his remarks signaled a renewed interest in running for president in 2008, saying he was focused only on policy. But in the crowd -- thick with Democratic activists, many of whom had followed Kerry's career for decades -- the hunger was evident. People yelled, ''Run!" and ''2008!"
''Oh, beautiful, wonderful," exulted Grace Lindquist, 86, making the A-OK sign from her wheelchair. ''One of the best speeches I've ever heard."
Natasha Rosenberg, 14, who came to the speech with a digital camera, beamed. ''It was great," she said. ''It put words to what I've been feeling about the entire deal for a long time."
And some wondered why Kerry -- who voted to give President Bush authorization to go to war in Iraq -- had not spoken out so forcefully during his failed bid for president in 2004.
Kerry offered a scathing review of what he derisively termed the ''Bush-Cheney doctrine" -- in which executive power trumps the constitutional separation of powers, ''and smearing administration critics is not only permissible, but necessary."
Over the course of the 40-minute speech, Kerry was interrupted by applause 39 times. He made one joke, riffing on Franco-American animosities and the fact that teaching German was banned in some schools during World War I.
''At that time, it was apparently sounding German, not looking French, that got you in trouble," Kerry said, to laughter.