Gone was the formidable presence, the trademark cigar, the Bronx plumber's growl, the acerbic one-liner that made the evening television news.

Instead out of a rather ordinary face sporting owlish glasses came carefully balanced and sometimes rather erudite observations, softened by a faint southern drawl and punctuated by nautical metapors.

The contrast could not have been more stunning as Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO's second-in-command for the last 10 years, emerged from George Meany's shadow and got a dry-run as the future leader of the 14-million-member labor federation.

And yet, perhaps because it has been expected for so long and because the two men's policies blend better than do thier styles, it was a matter-of-fact kind of event singularly lacking in fanfare, emotion and intrigue.

By most accounts, Kirkland's performacne as substitute ringmaster for the three-day midsummer meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council that ended here today was a smooth and able one, easing the way for the softspoken former merchant seaman from South Carolina to succeed Meany when he steps down.

Despite widespread belief that the ailing 84-year-old Meany will not run for a 13th presidential term at the federation's convention in November, there was still no authoritative word - meaning a sign from Meany himself - that this will happen.

Instead there was a brisk, even graceful, accommodation to what is viewed as eventually inevitable. The mood among council members appeared to be upbeat. Debate over issues was reportedly sharper than usual, but internal rancor was noticeably absent, at least in council deliberations. "The heavens didn't open, the earth didn't crack, we did pretty well," observed one council member.

To be sure, Meany's presence still hung heavy over the council's plush meeting room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here, with Kirkland and other members in frequent telephone contact with their convalescing leader at his suburban Washington home. They didn't amend their proposed energy policy resolution to include possible nationalization of the oil industry without checking with Meany, and one of his confidants said that had Meany been here, he would probably have been the first to suggest its inclusion.

But there was also the feeling, some said, that the AFL-CIO will never be the same again, even if Meany hangs on. "A corner was turned at this meeting, make no mistake about it," said one longtime observer of the federation, which Meany has headed since its formation in the mid-1950s. This observer, like many others, spoke of Meany's long stewardship in the past tense.

So great is the respect among his colleagues for Meany and his place in history that there was no talk of asking him to step down, even though some council members say privately they believe the time is due, if not overdue. The meeting seemed to send the message that the federation is ready.

Kirkland, who at 57 is organized labor's version of a new generation of leadership, has been assuming increasingly more control over the day-to-day operations of the federation, especially since Meany was hospitalized and then homebound with complications from a knee injury in April.

But this is the first time he has served as the official spokesman for the council, even though he presided in Meany's absence at its May meeting. Such distinctions can have more than passing significance in AFL-CIO folkways.

By coincidence or otherwise, a major issue for this council session was SALT II, dovetailing Krikland's long-standing interest in defense and disarmament. Although it took some public backtracking on his part to support the treaty, Kirkland put together near-unanimous support among the more than 30 union presidents on the council for a qualified endorsement of SALT II - thereby projecting an image of leadership, conciliatory talents and mastery of a complex subject.

In both the closed-door council sessions and the public briefings afterward, Kirkland walked a narrow line between overreaching his powers and creating a vacuum of leadership into which others might rush.

For instance, although heir-apparent has virtually been his middle name for years, he finally acknowledged he is a candidate to succeed Meany when Meany steps down, thereby establishing himself as first in line. But he blunted the edge of any presumptiveness with a deadpanned suggestion that no one has any "objective evidence" that his old leader won't go on forever. "I believe Meany is mortal," he said, "although that remains to be proven."

Later, after wrestling inconclusively with the singular and plural first-person pronouns, he just gave up and said "I" when he was asserting his own views.

On several occasions, Kirkland launched into long philosophical discourses that pointed up the contrast with the blunt, cryptic Meany.

At one point, Kirkland dismissed a suggestion that labor would reject President Carter solely because of his wage restraint guidelines, using it as a takeoff point for deploring intellectual intolerance and single-issue politics. And today he broached the idea that the nation's labor laws have become as encumbered by pro-business interpretations that unions might be better off without labor laws and with a "return to the law of the jungle."

He did not - and is not expected to - deviate in major ways from the Meany catechism of social welfare in domestic policy and hardline conservatisism in foreign policy. But he did appear more conciliatory than Meany toward Carter, pointing the way toward improved relations at the top.

Although the council is believed to abound with would-be AFL-CIO presidents, none made any overt signs of a challenge to Kirkland's ascension. Two building trades union presidents who have been mentioned frequently as possible challengers, Martin J. Ward of the plumbers and J. C. Turner of the operating engineers, said they were not running although neither closed the door on anything.

Nevertheless, the council members are expected to be more assertive under Kirkland because he lacks anything approaching Meany's commanding presence, and many AFL-CIO observers think a serious fragmentation could occur within the federation after Meany is gone.

But, for the moment, the AFL-CIO seems to be riding the tide of change comfortably - a scene that, as Ward noted today in a conversation with reporters, could "disappear in a helluva hurry" if Meany surprises them all and decides to stick around a while longer. CAPTION: Picture, LANE KIRKLAND; Kirkland's performance as substitute ringmaster for the midsummer meeting was a smooth and able one.