President John F. Kennedy walks Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain to his car, April 29, 1962, after a final meeting during a luncheon at the White House. (William J. Smith/AP)

Christopher Sandford begins this account of the relationship between the British prime minister Harold Macmillan and the American president John F. Kennedy with a meeting between the two in southern England. It occurred in June 1963, at which point Kennedy had been in office for 29 months and had weathered severe tests around the world, loyally supported by the much older (by 23 years) and more experienced Macmillan. As Sandford says, they had been through a lot:

“Between them they had rescued the Special Relationship [between Britain and the United States] after the rupture of the Suez Crisis, and done so at a time of uniquely high tensions around the world. Among other political or military challenges, their brief shared time in office had seen the coming of the Berlin Wall, the apparent risk to world peace posed by the Soviet Union and its territorial ambitions everywhere from Laos to British Guiana, the very real threat of the Cuban missile crisis, and a bitter internecine dispute about Britain’s possession of an independent nuclear deterrent. These were just the set-piece dramas. Through it all, the two leaders had exchanged not only formal messages but also a steady flow of handwritten notes, Christmas and birthday cards, congratulations, and, on occasion, condolences.”

It was the last meeting between the two. Three and a half months later, Macmillan was out of office, done in by the sex scandal caused by his minister for war, John Profumo, and a month after that Kennedy was dead, assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. The Special Relationship was maintained with less ardor by their successors, Alec Douglas-Home and Lyndon Johnson, and it has remained intermittently strong ever since, but there was a certain éclat to the Macmillan-Kennedy relationship that has never been equaled. In great part that was because Kennedy, though his lineage was Irish American, greatly admired British style and substance and sought, whether consciously or not, to emulate both. Macmillan understandably responded warmly to this, as well as to the energy Kennedy brought to the office he assumed at the age of 43.

By the time that happened, the roles of Britain and the United States were almost completely reversed. However reluctantly Macmillan may have accepted the role in which history had cast him, he knew that he was presiding over Britain’s slide from world power to second-class power, while Kennedy was cementing what Joseph Alsop, the journalist and Kennedy sycophant, later called “the American Ascendancy.” It appears that the two leaders genuinely liked each other, though Kennedy probably was impatient with Macmillan’s manner, “languid, formal, and capable of mandarin inscrutability,” while Macmillan had his own reservations about Kennedy:

“Macmillan’s attitude toward Kennedy had always been ambivalent, compounded of exasperation and respect, of distrust and admiration. In private, he had sometimes spoken of the young president in terms he’d wisely chosen to avoid in public. The gap between how Kennedy was judged in his lifetime and how he was depicted in death would become increasingly wide over the years. But underlying it all, Macmillan had felt a very real and lasting affection for a man who had been of the same generation as his own son, Maurice. Kennedy’s mixture of recklessness, calculation, idealism, exuberance, impetuosity, and courage had evoked a feeling of protectiveness among many of the elder statesmen of his day. Macmillan often appeared to watch him with that combination of nervousness and pride an accomplished actor might feel for a mercurial young protege stepping up to take his first starring role in public.”

’Harold and Jack: The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy’ by Christopher Sandford (Prometheus)

That passage appears at the point in Sandford’s narrative when Macmillan has just learned of Kennedy’s death. Like almost all of us, he was stunned and bereft, emotions that in his case doubtless were intensified by his own recent and utterly unwarranted removal from power. He and Kennedy had been in office at the same time for barely 21 / 2 years, yet in that brief time they “helped shape the world we live in now.” As Sandford says, “The decisions they took, often in personal exchanges, occasionally through more formal state apparatus, preserved a fragile peace in Berlin that would survive until eventual German reunification, rolled back the immediate threat of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States from within her hemisphere, and resolved other strategic uncertainties by means that included the signing of a Nuclear Test ban treaty, down to the establishment of a first transatlantic hotline.”

Sandford, a British journalist, may seem to some Americans to be bending over backward to amplify Macmillan’s place in the relationship and his role in resolving the great crises of the day, most particularly the Cuban missile crisis. He does acknowledge that there were long periods when Macmillan was kept out of Washington’s loop as the White House sought to devise a sophisticated response to Nikita Khrushchev’s bluster, but he insists that Macmillan “was much more than a mere accessory to American actions,” that “if Kennedy was necessarily at the forefront of events, Macmillan played a significant role behind the lines keeping the NATO and Commonwealth leaders firmly on side.” On the same page, though, Sandford acknowledges that “historians will argue whether Macmillan himself played an active role in the crisis as much as he served as a friendly sounding board for Kennedy’s decisions.” The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but closer to sounding board than valued adviser.

Cuba and Berlin were the great confrontations between East and West during the Kennedy-Macmillan years, and they deservedly get the most detailed attention in Sandford’s book. By contrast, only one chapter (“Special Relationships”) is devoted to the personal connections between the two men. Like many of those who came into the Kennedys’ orbit, Macmillan was enchanted by Jacqueline Kennedy, and she seems to have happily entered into a father-daughter relationship with him that lasted long after her husband’s assassination. As to the relationship between the two men, it seems to have been colored by the considerable difference in their ages and temperaments. It is a little difficult to believe that they would have been friends had they not held the offices they did; they probably were bound more by necessity than by personal affinity, but they made the most of the hand they were dealt.

“Harold and Jack” is on the whole an interesting and persuasive account of these accidental friends, but it does seem a trifle odd that Sandford should have written it. His résumé suggests that show business and pop music rather than politics are his true calling, as his previous books include biographies of David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Steve McQueen, Paul McCartney, Roman Polanski — the mind boggles at so long and inclusive a list. Perhaps he perceives John Kennedy as a rock star — he would not be the first to do so — but where Harold Macmillan fits into this assemblage of worthies is a mystery I am not prepared to solve.

Harold and Jack

The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy

By Christopher Sandford

Prometheus. 332 pp. $25.95