Both women say they're optimists, but they acknowledge that life's troubles can put a sunny disposition to the test. "You can be an optimist, and then the world falls out from under you," says Kotb, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and underwent a mastectomy. "At that point you either look for potholes everywhere, or you realize your life has margins, and you stop wasting time."
Gifford has had her share of hardships too, including a widely publicized philandering episode on the part of her husband in 1997. She admits to suffering from depression occasionally and says that her deep Christian faith has helped her to stay focused on the positive.
In addition, the way her younger sister dealt with near death and a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, after the birth of her only child, inspired her.
"I was furious with God that my beautiful sister, at age 23, would have a colostomy bag hanging off her body for the rest of her life," Gifford explains. "But she said, 'Don't curse God for this bag. It means I get to live the rest of my life, I get to see my daughter grow up.' I was looking at the wrong thing."
What inspires Gifford these days is a comment that the late actor Paul Newman once made to her at a fundraiser for the playhouse in Westport, Conn. "I said, 'Paul, I haven't seen you in so long. How are you?' " Gifford remembers. Newman answered: "I'm 80 years old. I have a pulse."
It has become her mantra. "If you have a pulse, you have a purpose," Gifford says. "Every morning, before I get out of bed now, I take my pulse. If I have one, that means that God's not finished with me yet. I still have work to do on this planet."
The afternoon is winding down, and Gifford and Kotb are enjoying a late lunch of chicken salad, watermelon and, of course, pinot grigio. They talk about the value of staying open to new experiences. "I thought my heart didn't have any more room for more people," Gifford says. "I felt I didn't have enough time for the friends I already had. But if I hadn't made room for Hoda, I would have missed out on one of the great blessings of my life."
"By the time you reach my age, you generally know what's in you," says Kotb. "But I didn't know. It takes the right person to bring it out. I say thank you to Kathie Lee all the time. Before her, I'd still be doing what I was doing and not know what I was missing. My life would be half as full."
Gifford feels equally enriched by the partnership. "It's like an old man who's taken a young lover," she quips. "He's got a jaunty little step."
Meg Grant is the West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.