2 Californians in Town for Very Different Reasons

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A01

Both left California early Monday morning -- he from San Francisco, she from Los Angeles -- embarked on their missions to Washington.

He is 55, a vegetarian pacifist and laid-off software engineer who has lived in a commune and owns a fuel-efficient hybrid car with the bumper slogan "Terrorism Prevention Vehicle."

She is 60, a recently widowed antiabortion Catholic, the daughter of an Air Force general and an opponent of same-sex marriage.

He is staying in a spartan youth hostel in Takoma Park; she in the J.W. Marriott Hotel, near the White House.

He comes to mourn, and protest, tomorrow's second inauguration of President Bush; she, her luggage packed with four ball gowns, is in Washington to rejoice.

Jon Bjornstad of Santa Cruz and Anna Bryson of Dana Point, about 400 miles down the Pacific coast, are among the thousands of people pouring into the area to celebrate or protest the president's inauguration.

Both are accomplished middle-aged Americans who have experienced life's joy and sorrow. Both have strong political convictions, reached via vastly different routes. In their coast-to-coast pilgrimages, they typify the chronic national divisions that are being replayed on the inaugural stage in Washington this week.

Bjornstad, who volunteered for Democratic nominee John F. Kerry during the election campaign, said of Bush: "I can't believe he's our president. . . . He's such a misspoken, bumbling fool."

Bryson, who worked on Bush's behalf last year and four years ago, said: "He's the only politician I have ever met that actually heard what I said to him and took the time to look me in the eye."

Bjornstad, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., believes that the United States has become a kind of global bully.

Bryson, a third-generation Texan by birth, believes that the country must make a stand against terrorism.

Bjornstad, who has a reserved ticket to the swearing-in ceremony, has been trying to think of an appropriate public protest. Should he simply walk out, kneel and pray or stage a sneezing fit?

"I have to do something," he said. "I want to do something that is actually productive, that might make people think [about] what is going on here."

Bryson, whose husband, Jeff, died of lung cancer in July, traveled to the city with her 15-year-old grandson and a business associate.

"We have an amazing agenda," she said. "I'm attending everything," including the swearing-in and balls at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

A half moon gleamed in the frigid sky Monday night when Bjornstad trudged up the concrete steps to the hostel, just across the street from a Metro stop, and was shown to a room that contained five beds. The receptionist noted that there were, among other things, a table tennis table and a hammock in the back yard, a pool table in the basement "lounge" and three restrooms.

Bjornstad, a quiet, amiable man with short gray hair, looked satisfied and said he much preferred the hostel to the isolation of a motel room.

Bryson, a tall, vivacious woman with long, red hair, had arrived in Washington a few hours earlier, entering the Marriott lobby with its chandeliers and white-gloved bellhops a little after 7 p.m. Ticking off the events she planned to attend and the sights she wanted to see, she said the inauguration was sheer American "celebration."

"We are awed and thrilled to be privileged to be citizens of this great country," she said later. "I'll tell you that."

Tomorrow, as the president takes the oath of office outside the Capitol, their two journeys will end at the same time and place.

Bjornstad, who is unmarried, said his family moved to California when he was 10. Bjornstad studied math in college and won a fellowship to the University of Maryland, where he received a master's degree. He later went to work for the Census Bureau in Suitland.

He said that his parents were moderate Republicans and that he was not a protester during the Vietnam War. "I still had trust in my government," he said. "I just couldn't believe that they would do anything wrong."

In 1976, he became a vegetarian and began to look at things differently. "It was a revolution in philosophy. . . . It woke me up, that the status quo is not all that it seems."

He returned to California, got a degree in biology, did some traveling and honed his software skills. He got a job, and lost it, joined what he described as a "high-functioning commune" and then returned to the working world.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bjornstad went to hear candidate Ralph Nader speak. "That was another revolutionary experience," he said. "He educated me about what was really going on in this country, how corrupt and morally bankrupt both the Democrats and Republicans were."

He said he became an avid Nader supporter and volunteer. He found Bush "rather lightheaded and lightweight."

Last year, he did extensive volunteer work for Kerry and was amazed by, and curious about, Bush's victory.

Bryson -- a former actress who has two grown children, speaks four languages and heads a company that makes computer software for auto dealerships -- said she grew up traveling the world with her military family.

She said she was well schooled in politics and diplomacy, was once an activist Democrat and worked for the campaign of President John F. Kennedy in 1960 when her father was stationed at an Air Force base in Ohio.

She said she once met Kennedy and was struck by his charisma. Of her family, she said: "We were all Democrats, until Jimmy Carter. And then we all left the party, never to return."

Like Bryson, her late husband, an immigrant from Hungary, was devoted to President Bush, she said, and even as he was dying last year, he urged her to continue to work for Bush's reelection. Five weeks after her husband's death, she attended the Republican National Convention.

Yesterday, Bjornstad donned some warmer clothes -- he thought about buying long johns but tried jeans instead -- and headed to the protest "Convergence Center" on New York Avenue NE.

He walked up the stairs to the chilly second-floor warehouse space and offered to volunteer. People were just starting to arrive, and there was plenty to do: cooking, cleaning up, helping with the computers.

Bryson had a tour of the White House, a visit to a Smithsonian museum and several cocktail parties on her schedule yesterday. But her morning began when she walked out the hotel door and a flight of fighter jets shrieked overhead, rehearsing for tomorrow's celebration. "It just about blew our hair off," she said later. "It was beyond cool."