Those who knew him said Russert's upbringing in heavily Irish, blue-collar South Buffalo left the newsman with a common touch that he never lost.
Russert studied political science at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in Cleveland, before obtaining a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
He got his start in politics as a young field organizer for the 1976 Senate campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). After working as Moynihan's chief of staff in the Senate, he signed on to Mario Cuomo's 1982 Democratic campaign for governor of New York and stayed with Cuomo as a counselor for two years.
In 1984, NBC News recruited him as a deputy to the news president. Initially, Russert worked behind the scenes, helping supervise the coverage of major events before being named Washington bureau chief in 1988. Three years later, then-NBC News President Michael Gartner asked him to be the new host of "Meet the Press."
Friends say he was unsure about making the move.
"He really reluctantly in the beginning came to television," said PBS anchor Judy Woodruff. "This isn't what he saw himself doing. But he found his way to combine his love of government and public policy, and to share the joy and curiosity and all the range of interests he had with an audience. So in a way, it was a natural."
Russert quickly helped lift the show from third to first place, a slot it has held the last decade. So far this season, the show has averaged 3.9 million viewers, while ABC's "This Week" has drawn 2.74 million and CBS' "Face the Nation" has pulled in 2.65 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"We reverted back to the original 'Meet the Press': Put a guest in the seat, turn on the lights, turn on the camera and go at it," Russert told the Kansas City Star last year. "Let people finish their thoughts, but be persistent."
Schieffer, who competed against Russert on Sunday mornings, praised him for making the transition from politics "in the way all of us in journalism can be proud of."
"He was not in any way partisan," he said. "He looked on everyone in the same way. He asked good, tough questions, and he asked them of everyone. His great secret was he listened to what someone had to say. You couldn't get one past him."
The NBC newsman's often-prosecutorial approach led his show to be dubbed the "Russert primary" by political aides; if candidates could survive an appearance on "Meet the Press," they had a shot.
Russert told the trade magazine TVWeek last year that he believed the show was an "oasis" on television.
"Most of the interviews you see are very quick, by the politicians' design," he said. "If you're able to get a public official or candidate to sit for an hour, you can really get beyond the boilerplate. . . . I think that can be an invaluable public service."
Russert was forced into the uncomfortable position of answering questions himself last year when he was called to testify in the federal perjury and obstruction trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. The newsman made no secret of his unease with the task, in which he testified that he had never spoken with Libby about the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, contrary to what Libby said.
Long an ambitious figure in the news division, Russert was once viewed as a contender to be president of NBC News but in recent years appeared content with his role. He had an unusually long contract with the network that guaranteed his spot on "Meet the Press" until 2012.
For all of his status in Washington, Russert was "not a very social animal," he told TVWeek. "I don't go to many dinner parties or cocktail parties. . . . I much prefer to go to a baseball game or basketball game with my son."
An observant Catholic, Russert was thrilled earlier this year when he was invited with a select group of journalists to meet Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Washington.
Blitzer, also from Buffalo, recalls standing next to him in a small room at Catholic University, waiting for the pope to arrive. Russert was excitedly clutching his rosary and beaming.
"This wasn't Tim Russert, the powerful anchor and moderator of 'Meet the Press,' " Blitzer said. "It was just little Timmy from Buffalo. . . . He looked at me before the pope came in and said, 'Can you believe it, two kids from Buffalo are about to meet the pope?' "
Along with his wife and son, Russert is survived by his father and three sisters.
Times staff writers Meg James and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.