Part of the legend of David Cairo is centered around his utter disdain for the business establishment in Atlanta and no name looms higher in his contempt than developer Paxton Walker. I can tell you the feeling was mutual. But the most famous example of this is also the most controversial. Did Cairo really compare Walker to General Sherman? The consensus is he did and Walker certainly thought he had.
Everyone agrees he said it, even Cairo, and there are enough reports from enough credible sources to suggest it was true, but no one can confirm when or where. When I asked Cairo about it, he said he thinks it was an off the cuff remark said outside a formal context, like a reporter catching him outside his building once. I’ve never found it in print, though, and just about every other word out of his mouth was quoted by someone.
It was certainly not at the Buckhead Coalition like most reports state. Hell, Cairo only attended two meetings and one was when they recognized him as man of the year. I was there for that, and he certainly didn’t say it then. Given the number of people spreading it around, one would get the idea he took out a full-page ad in the AJC. I first heard it in the summer of’98 and by then, it was already being quoted as Gospel.
People can’t even agree on what, exactly, he said. Cairo remembered it as, “Not since Sherman has a single individual had such an impact on this city.”
Another person who claimed knowledge of it said it was more like, “You’d have to go back to Sherman to find someone who had a bigger impact on the city.”
My own theory is that Cairo said it more than once, with slight variations each time. One of his quirks, that I’ve heard several people remark on, is that Cairo likes to rehearse lines and phrases. He’ll come up with a quip, then say it over and over to himself until he works out the way that works best for him. I’ve even seen him do it. At a shareholder’s meeting he made an off the cuff remark about earnings that he seemed to like, and I heard him repeat it in a slightly different way in several conversations until he settled on the one he liked best. He later used it in his presentation in its perfected format.
So, my guess is that Cairo made the comparison of Walker to Sherman and probably tried out several versions on different people until he settled on the one he liked best. After that, he repeated it every chance he got. The most consistent one I’ve heard is, “Not since Sherman in 1864 has a single individual had as much impact on Atlanta as Paxton Walker.”
Needless to say, it had the desired effect. I interviewed Walker about six months before he died and he was still fuming about it. He even went so far as to cut his oldest daughter out of his life when she went to Cairo for venture capital to start her company.